1 the dharma of each other by christopher mccann I m sitting at my friend s bedside, in Toronto Western Hospital, when she starts to tell me a story I didn t know I needed to hear. My friend is Roshi Joan Halifax, and a few days prior, on her annual teaching visit to Toronto, she slipped on a wet bathroom floor and broke her hip. When she emerged from the surgery with a metal plate and screws fastened to her healing bones, a community of friends had filled her room with flowers and pictures, and now a large pink rose floats in a glass bowl filling the room with it s bright, colorful perfume. I ve brought her a picture of her dog, Dominga, that she raised to her forehead like a picture of a saint before placing it on the table beside her. It s been close to two years since we ve seen each other, and we are happy and easy in each other s presence. Her eyes are deep and steady, something I recognize instantly, even though she has been riding little waves of birth and death throughout her hospital stay. The tone of her voice raises and stirs my attention. 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.
2 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, towards 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 towards you through his terrified eyes. The 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 towards 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. I first met my friend 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, a residential training and retreat center
3 that she founded in I met her like I met the few people who have changed the course of my life irrevocably. In the first weeks of knowing each other, there was a joyful recognition of our new friendship, but I had no idea how much water would have to pass between us before I felt like we were standing on the same shore. I d 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 as her jisha, assistant. I d 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 d 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 d 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. Today she asks me to leave so she can relieve herself into a contraption that looks like a cross between a bedpan and a wheelchair beside her bed. 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 she has vowed to serve.
4 Back to the story. 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, those 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. She tells me her friend and fellow Buddhist teacher, Mathieu Ricard, told her this story and she often uses it to illustrate empathy, compassion, and the difference between the two. I lean back in my chair and exhale, satisfied. I love stories like that, ones that are difficult, maybe painful to penetrate, but that nourish you no matter how dark the woods were that you tramped through to get there. Nobody really owns stories like these. Passed from mouth to ear to mouth, they reach across great distances and spans of time.
5 As a dedicated spiritual practitioner for more than three decades, Roshi Joan Halifax has studied and practiced with Korean Zen Master Sung Sahn, Thich Nhat Hahn, and most recently Roshi Bernie Glassman, from whom she received inka, or seal of approval as a Zen Master, in At the Upaya Zen Center, where she is abbot and head teacher, fellow practitioner and pilgrims can practice, serve, and as in my case, live. Upaya is the home of the Chaplaincy Training Program that Roshi launched in the beginning of As a culmination of her life s work and vision, this unique program is the first like it in the world. 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. At least I do. But, as I found out, whether or not you feel able to is a whole other story indeed. In a recent , Maia Duerr, coordinator of the Chaplaincy Training Program, wrote to me that, The [program] is unique in length -- two years, designed to be the equivalent of a Master s of Divinity -- and in it s 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
6 great need of healing. They will be equipped to think in terms of concentric circles of healing as they go into professional settings. The faculty that Roshi 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. Keep it simple, keep it simple, this is what Roshi Joan Halifax 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 s practice for more than thirty years. Sitting down, taking a relaxed and alert posture, breathing in and out, focusing your mind, finding your center. What could be easier than sitting still and breathing? Anyone who has
7 ever tried just this probably shares my opinion that riding a unicycle while juggling flaming bowling pins is a a lot easier. Zazen is a very potent vehicle for stripping away illusion. The first process of zazen is to fundamentally stabilize the mind so that it is razor sharp. Then, every cognition that arises, you cut through it, so you don t end up believing your thoughts, and believing your conditioning. When that stability arises, the attentional field opens. You enter into a profound receptivity, which is mirror-like, involuntary, panoramic, and nonjudgmental, and cannot fundamentally be disturbed. It s all inclusive, it s moment by moment, it s who you really are. It is from this non-dual base that Roshi Joan teaches people to allow a response to suffering. From this deep meditative place, allow a fearless and loving action to face whatever present for you. 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 be called upayas, or skillful means. This sanskrit word provided the name for another one of Roshi Joan s visions, her practice community. This is a container for not only Roshi s teachings, but for each and every individual to
8 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 our 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. 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,
9 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 roon. I looked everywhere for this special enlightenment, especially towards 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 lunch time, 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 her 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.
10 I shift in my seat, sensing it is time to leave, when Roshi Joan says something that beautifully caps our conversation and illustrates her present situation. 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. It is hard to walk out the door, leaving my friend behind in her hospital bed. We don t know when or if we will see each other again. When I reach back to wave, a questions hangs 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.