Issue 16: Winter 2011/12


Upaya - Compassion in Action

By Ji Den Dai U


“Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed! Do not squander your life...”

Evening Gatha

Arriving at Upaya Zen Monastery, in darkness under a clear sky lit up with stars was truly magical. Santa Fe, literally ‘holy faith’ is the principal city of New Mexico, the oldest and highest state capital with an elevation of 7000 feet. Upaya monastery is just two miles from downtown Santa Fe cradled in the quiet east valley and the peace of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Upaya rises, always fresh and new, to meet you out of the desert night…. dignified, simple and beautiful. Uniquely individual adobe buildings, creatively turned woodwork and fired art are immediately welcoming. The energy of Upaya is creative and enlivening, truly living up to its name which translates as skilful means, embracing and weaving threads from all traditions into a blanket for humanity.
A training centre dedicated to wisdom and compassion expressed through Zen practice and engaged social action, I guessed I was in the right place as I had become inspired by the mission of the founder, Roshi Joan Halifax, to provide an organic and evolving landscape for engaged community practice. In particular training programmes in the areas of death and dying, prison work, the environment, women’s rights, and peace work are expressly dedicated as true effort to fulfil the vision of the Five Buddha Family Mandala as an integrated, interconnected, and process oriented weaving of spirituality, education, right livelihood, path of service, and community into one whole cloth. Around the same time as my application to Upaya was accepted I received a gift of a thanka of the five Buddha families bought in Bodhgaya from a good friend just back from a trip to India. How wonderful!

‘The world is depending on people like you!’
Roshi Joan brought 75 clinicians into the zendo in a moment with these words. Silence….presence….the eight day training ‘Being with dying’ had begun. Since 2007, training for health care professionals in the compassionate care of the dying has been dedicated to the promotion of partnerships and the development of clinical sensitivity toward authentic care giving for dying people and their care givers.

Completely unique and organic each year this programme has invited new speakers and contributors. Engaging in these teachings sinks into our bones and changes our understanding of living and dying in a way that I really don’t think would be possible in any other setting. It sets us on fire, reclaiming our own lives.

Skill with language contributes to a truly visionary way to offer boundless teachings in a non threatening way to a damaged and pathological view of being bodies, living and dying. The term ‘contemplative care’ is embraced as it cuts through definitions and can be accepted in any setting. It cannot be owned by any latest trend, group or culture. Despite the setting in a Zen monastery a secular emphasis is successful. Compassion has no religion or boundaries. Practicing together, witnessing our fatigue and dissatisfaction with healthcare systems without judgement or blame proved a great relief to all present.

Roshi Joan reminds us of how our care giving can become sick when we are not present to our own suffering. Bearing witness to ourselves as well as to others allows us to transform deep suffering. Ancient wounding from the day to day taking in of suffering year after year can and does contribute to unhealthy ways of coping. Reference to the research literature is a wake up call that neglecting awareness of our own inner processes can harden via vicarious or secondary traumatization into a culture of horizontal and vertical violence, more common than any of us would want to acknowledge.

The practice of self compassion begins with being present……
Sitting with this breath…. ‘a thread that brings mind and body together……and your life is hanging on it.’ A team of experts in their fields together gently remind us how to be what we trained all our lives to be, demonstrating as if through an embodied, interdependent and transparent relational field. The love, flexibility and respect for each other models exactly what we all travelled here to learn. The intentions and sincere practice of each individual participating from front line care of the dying from fields of medicine, nursing, psychology, social and allied professions creates a powerful container for nurturing and healing.

"The spiritual life begins with contemplation of death."


Discussing our own dying wishes opens hearts to the sorrow of our own mortality and potential to take care of our own precious lives and do no harm. Looking at my own worst case scenario opened me to a terror of my last moments in this body being helpless, in a clinical setting with intervention that I would not wish for, speechless and at the mercy of hands that feel uncaring, dehumanizing or cruel.
Aware of a best case scenario in deep and gentle silence supporting bodhisattva vows with sangha and loved ones until my last breath awakens an immediacy to inform loved ones of my wishes and thus relieve them of any burden of not knowing.

Changed by the experience of Upaya, a determination to develop further the insights that have arisen has led to an application to the chaplaincy training programme. Like a strand of Upaya’s giant web, supported and supporting aspirations have sustained a heart to develop as a fully human being, aware of the deep privilege of service and to share some strands of the teaching with others in caring professions.

I trust what is needed to support this aspiration will arise…..out of the desert…..

Ji Den Dai U
Compassion Field
Vast Rain

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