“Being awake is love. That’s what it is. It’s certainly not hate. It’s certainly not fear. But what it is, it’s a sense of being not separate from all the suffering and all of the emptiness, all of the compassion, all of the wisdom, all of the liberation, and all of the enslavement, to understand we’re all that.
We’re in a threshold experience right now. We’re in this kind of situation where we don’t have any time to waste. And I like the Zen evening verse that we chant that goes, ‘Life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly, and the opportunity is lost. Let us awaken, awaken. Do not squander your life.'”
Joan Halifax Roshi is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, ecologist, civil rights activist, hospice caregiver and author. She is the current abbot and Head Teacher at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, a Zen Peacemaker community which she founded in 1990. Having received Dharma transmission from Bernard Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh, she has been active in the areas of socially engaged Buddhism, environmental work and compassionate care for the dying for the past three decades.
Halifax experienced going legally blind at the age of four due to a serious virus, from which she recovered two years later. She became interested in Buddhism in her early twenties, teaching herself to meditate. In the 1970s she worked on research projects exploring the use of LSD as a support for the dying, co-authoring the book The Human Encounter With Death. She also collaborated on works with Joseph Campbell and Alan Lomax.
She received her Ph.D. in medical anthropology and psychology and worked at the University of Miami School of Medicine. She worked at the Museum of Man in Paris and travelled to Mali and then Mexico to study the indigenous Dogon Tribe and the Huichols.
Halifax studied Buddhism for a decade with Zen Teacher Seung Sahn and was a teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School. She was an Honorary Research Fellow at Harvard University, and has taught in universities, monasteries, and medical centres around the world.
Her extensive work with the dying through the project on Being with Dying, which she founded, as well as her book Being With Dying has helped terminally ill patients, medical professionals, caregivers and loved ones, clergy, community activist and social workers to deal with fear at the end of life. She also co-authored several books on Buddhism and spirituality.
Haifax is founder and Director of the Upaya Prison Project that creates meditation programs for prisoners, and founder of the Ojai Foundation in California, an educational and interfaith center. She is a distinguished invited scholar to the Library of Congress and the only woman and buddhist to be on the Advisory Council for the Tony Blair Foundation.
Thought of as fiercely courageous and compassionate, Joan Halifax Roshi works to spread the message of our intrinsic connection to life, death and each other. “Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.”
Upaya Institute and Zen Center website:
Listen to Dharma Talks by Joan Halifax Roshi:
Read Joan Halifax Roshi’s writings:
Joan Halifax at TED: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy (13 min)
Joan Halifax on Altruism in Financial Life (10 min)