This weekend I attended an online teaching with the Zen Buddhist Upaya Institute. It was led by Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. Joan is Abbot of the Upaya Monastery and Frank is co-founder of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco (now the Zen Caregiving Project).

I first became aware of Joan Halifax’s work quite recently when my good friend and celebrant colleague, Emma Curtis, recommended her book Standing at the Edge. The book explores how some of the qualities we normally consider to be entirely virtuous and good – altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, engagement – can also become the cause of personal suffering. A classic example might be an end of life care nurse who empathizes too closely with the pain and suffering that their patients are experiencing and so “takes on” that pain themselves. It’s not that empathy is wrong – a nurse would not be able to do their job effectively without it. But these qualities, what Halifax calls Edge States, can sometimes get out of kilter.

I found it a fascinating and extremely useful read, especially the discussions on altruism. So I was very interested to see a weekend teaching on the themes of Love and Death: Opening the Great Gifts and I signed up.

The Upaya Institute is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico so this was strictly an online experience and quite demanding for me because of the time differences. But immensely rewarding. Both teachers are wonderful speakers and they gently explored many of the difficult and painful issues around death, suffering, grief and love. They are not simply intelligent, articulate, and inspiring people – they also speak with a deep wisdom that comes no doubt from their long experience of practical work in the areas of end of life and palliative care. And they brought poetry and their own Buddhist perspectives to the sessions.

A couple of things stood out for me. One was that, contrary to a common idea of Buddhism as a rather remote and dispassionate practice (an idea that I often held myself), these people are fiercely aware of and passionate about tackling social injustice and the great challenges of our age – most especially the climate crisis.

And secondly I was so impressed at how they succeeded in making the zoom room such an intimate, respectful and at times reverential space – a “sacred screen”. There were more than 400 people in that room and yet it really did feel like a small gathering. Usually in zoom trainings there are times when I zone out or actually switch off, but this weekend the sessions held my attention from start to finish. Lessons here for my own online ceremonies and practice.

I hope to attend similar programs in the future – and in the meantime, sending gratitude to Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, to the Upaya Institute, and to Emma for the recommendation.

Michael Hannah, Dundee, August 2021

The Sacred Screen

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