Joan Halifax and Her Robe of Many Tears

Joan Halifax reflects on her life of science, stories and spiritual search, and her work now with the great teacher, death.

Stephen Foehr
1 November 1997

As she sews a kesa for her ordination in the new Peacemaker Order, Joan Halifax reflects on her life of science, stories and spiritual search, and her work now with the great teacher, death.

Joan Halifax leaned forward and asked her friend for a piece of personal clothing, “for something I’m making.” The woman, a survivor of breast cancer, nodded in agreement.

Time after time Halifax repeated the request to men and women with severe illnesses, to elders, to the relatives of deceased people.

She was given the old flannel nightgown of a woman who died of Alzheimer’s disease; a handkerchief from her 88-year-old father; a silk scarf of a man who died of prostate cancer; a dress from a woman with AIDS. She received a wedding dress, a wool Chinese coat, a beautiful old silk nightgown, pajama bottoms, a quilt, a piece of red fabric used to carry the ashes of Tenzing Norgay to Mount Kailash, and a silk scarf with ships printed on it.

She used these mementos of life and death to make her kesa (KAY-sa) a Buddhist robe, for her ordination into the Japanese Buddhist Soto lineage and into Roshi Glassman’s new Zen Peacemaker Order. The traditional kesa is made from shrouds of deceased individuals as a reminder of impermanence and compassion.

As we speak, her account of hand-making the kesa becomes an autobiographical tour of Joan Halifax’s life as a civil rights activist, an anthropologist who spent many years with indigenous peoples, a spiritual seeker, an author, a Buddhist teacher, a counselor to the dying, and a teacher of health care professionals about the dying process.

Halifax is important in our cultural/spiritual milieu for more than her achievements. “Joan has mastered the awareness of the emerging paradigm of the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and not a dead chunk of matter,” says Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, holder of the World Wisdom Chair at The Naropa Institute.

“She has also received and honored lineages of the East and West. She has pioneered mind and spirit expansion. All this with a compassionate heart and embodiment of the divine feminine.”

As we talk of her upcoming ordination, Halifax says, “Making the kesa out of scraps of fabric gathered from people whose lives have been touched by death has turned my mind toward compassion for the living and the gift of being with the dying,” Halifax says as we talk of her upcoming ordination and about her life. “Death certainly brings our attention to the transitory nature of existence. I feel respect for how honest death can make us, and how deeply appreciative of our lives death can make us, if we truly face it. Death informs all of us.”

Halifax began working with the dying in 1970 as a medical anthropologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine. In 1972, she married Stanislav Grof and explored the use of LSD as an adjunct to psychotherapy for people dying of cancer. From that collaboration came their book, The Human Encounter with Death.

In the mid-1980’s, she worked for mythologist Joseph Campbell, and then founded the Ojai Foundation, an educational center and community in California, while continuing her work with dying people.

In 1990, she moved to Santa Fe and founded Upaya, a Buddhist study and practice center. She continued counseling the dying, mainly people with AIDS. “I really learned a tremendous amount from that group of people,” she recounts. “I was working with men who wanted to die well, who wanted to be an example for men who were like them, men who were homosexual and who had AIDS. Conscious dying was important to them.

“My work with Stan Grof, my former husband, was concerned with the psychological aspects of dying. Now, twenty-five years later and after years of Buddhist practice, I realized that I had an opportunity to teach contemplative care of dying people.”

We have, in the West, tried to explain away “the unknowable”— whether it’s the dark matter of cosmic space, or the nature of the psyche, or death—through a devotion to a so-called objective reality, Halifax maintains. We try to analyze or reduce everything to understandables.

“One of the graces of working with dying people is that we may more surely enter into the unknown,” she says. “People ask, ‘What is death like?’ I don’t know. Death is a mystery. It’s an equal mystery to me as love. I cannot reduce love to hormones or psychological responses. It goes much deeper than that. Nor can I reduce death to a physiological flat line.”

Once she had gathered enough material for the kesa, Halifax did a rough cut. That first cut was difficult. She was tentative about putting scissors to the beautiful fabrics and pulling the seams apart. She felt respect for the lives represented by the pieces of fabric. As she handled each piece, she was aware of her feelings of intimacy with all the people, living and dead, who were part of her robe.

She proceeded mindfully, her hand made cautious by the concern of making a mistake.

“I had a commitment to being careful,” she explains. “I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I knew I would make mistakes in cutting and sewing the kesa. I’m not an artsy-craftsy person. But I’m at that stage of my life (55 years old) where I accept my mistakes with some degree of grace. Sometimes I’m able to make something good out of my failures. Cutting and sewing, I relaxed and felt gratitude for this practice of intimacy and mindfulness.”

Halifax has faced, on many occasions, situations where making a mistake would have been like breaking through thin ice on a deep pond—a harsh change of reality. When she was 27, she drove a Volkswagen van, by herself, from the Mediterranean coast across the Sahara to Mali. She wanted to witness the Sigui, the Dogon people’s seven-year rite of passage that happens every 53 years, a ritual of renewal for the entire culture.

It was hard driving. A VW van is not designed for desert travel. Every few hours she had to muck sand out of the oil pan. She got stuck many many times and had to dig herself out. She got lost.

“It was very scary,” she admits. “The Sahara is huge. It’s not like there are gas stations, let alone roads. You basically drive from oil drum to oil drum, which are like buoys in a great ocean of sand guiding you across the expanse of the desert. People can romanticize nature, but nature has a lot of tooth and fang. One afternoon I got caught in a howling sandstorm. That storm not only removed the paint from the van but also took off some of my edges.”

Every mess she got in, she had to get herself out. “It was just one step at a time,” she recalls. “Sometimes I would just sit in the shadow of the van and look out over that orange sandy ocean of emptiness and feel profound contentment. At other times, my loneliness was overwhelming. To keep going, I’d get involved with the details of dealing with the situation, like how far do I have to go, am I going in the right direction, is someone going to show up who will hurt me? You can spend your whole life fearful, or you leap up and see the sacred mountains. On that trip, I did both.”

Halifax’s discomfort with academic anthropology prompted her to drive across the Sahara. She had a degree from Tulane University, but was more passionate about her civil rights organizing for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She became an anti-Vietnam War protester. She worked at Columbia University as an assistant to the folklorist Alan Lomax on a project analyzing song and dance cross-culturally. She left Columbia, went to Paris, worked at the Musée de L’Homme, and then went to do her own field work with the Dogon.

“The university work was so repressive and male-dominated,” she says. “The way anthropology was taught objectified human beings and culture. It just didn’t cut bait for me. It seemed amoral and was not concerned with the well-being of the environment, culture, and people. I needed to find another educational path, and, in part, going to Africa was part of that search.”
She did eventually earn her Ph.D. in medical anthropology and has since taught at numerous universities, including Columbia University, the University of Miami School of Medicine, the New School for Social Research in New York, and The Naropa Institute in Boulder. Her various academic awards include a National Science Foundation fellowship in visual anthropology, an appointment as an honorary research fellow in medical ethnobotany at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, and an appointment to the Harold C. Wit Chair at Harvard’s Divinity School.

It was her questioning of the politics of protest and educational institutions that led her to Buddhism. In the mid-1960’s, she read D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts’ books on Buddhism and Zen. She read about and was inspired by the Vietnamese monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh, who had worked courageously with both sides to broker peace during the Vietnam War. She began to practice Zen by herself. After 10 years of spiritual practice in isolation, she knew it was time to find a teacher. Her first teacher was Soen sa Nim, the Korean Zen master.

“He’s a wonderful man—very charismatic, very funny, very powerful, and quite military in his style of practice, highly demanding,” Halifax says. “We had a wonderful and wild connection. I traveled with him and taught with him. He was very empowering, very encouraging of me. Our relationship was quite non-ordinary. It probably would have raised the hair on some people’s heads.”

Halifax studied with Soen sa Nim for 10 years. In 1980, he ordained her as a Buddhist teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School. In the mid-1980’s, she met Thich Nhat Hanh at his center, Plum Village, in southern France. He became her second teacher. She has studied with Thich Nhat Hanh for nearly 15 years and was ordained as a dharmacarya in his Tiep Hien order in 1990.
“Thich Nhat Hanh’s style wasn’t like Soen sa Nim’s,” she says. “It was more feminine. I loved his explications of the teachings of the Buddha. I found them very lucid. His emphasis on engaged Buddhism was most inspiring to me.”

The appeal of engaged Buddhism eventually pulled her to Roshi Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Community of New York and the Zen Peacemaker Order, with his wife Jishu Holmes Sensei. Their mission is to integrate spirituality, livelihood, social action, study, and relationship in an interfaith environment. Roshi Glassman is her third teacher and ordained her as a priest in the Soto lineage.

“For most of my life, I’ve been involved in social transformation,” Halifax explains. “Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the importance of a Buddhism that is grounded in compassion and social engagement. Bernie is bringing forward the heart of engaged Buddhism in his work with homeless people, interfaith communities, peacemaking, and ‘bearing witness’ in places of great suffering, like Auschwitz and the Bowery. Soen sa Nim deepened my resolve. Thich Nhat Hanh deepened my compassion. Bernie is helping me to deepen my practice and social commitment.”

Once Halifax made the rough cut for her kesa, she soaked the pieces in a dye bath made up of three colors—black, blood red, and khaki.

“For me, black is about death and the great mystery,” she says. “Red is about life and the coming into being. The khaki is, in a way, about earth and flesh, the thing that makes us possible to awaken in this lifetime.”

She wanted her kesa to be black and even put in an extra heaping of black dye. But, when she pulled the material out of the dye bath, the original patterns and colors were all apparent.

“This is not what I expected. At first I was concerned,” she says. “Yet when it dried, I saw how beautiful it was. It was so diverse—silk and cotton and linen pieces from people who had recently died, from people who were in the process of dying, from people who survived severe illnesses, from the very elderly, and from people who died many years ago.”

The emerging kesa was, she realized, about stories.

“Stories, like our immune system, connect and protect us,” Halifax says. “Why is it we love to listen to our teachers and elders tell a story? Because it’s a way that we can find ourselves in a landscape that offers a new and deeper perspective on who we really are. Stories are medicine because they teach us about and prepare us for the experience of change. Through the story, we may connect to a more realistic vision of who we really are.”

Stories played an important part in Halifax’s personal life. One of the key people of her childhood in Florida was Lilla, her nanny. Lilla was a great storyteller.

“The stories she told were about her life. Yet they were all intermingled with folk tales,” Halifax recalls. “The mythic element was always present in our relationship. Lilla’s mother had been a slave, and Lilla’s attitudes, ethics, mores, values, her whole atmosphere of generosity and tremendous humor, were a very important influence on me. She sang and talked to herself constantly. She had an interior freedom which I found inspiring and nourishing.”

Another strong female influence was her grandmother on her father’s side who lived in Savannah, Georgia, in a house with slave quarters in the back. She was an artist and sculptor who designed beautiful monuments in a Savannah graveyard. She also cared for dying people, just because she was that kind of person.

Whenever the young Joan visited her grandmother in Savannah, she would curl up in her arms and listen to stories about the ghosts in the house. The grandmother was a very convincing storyteller. “I’d be hugging her and hear the spirits rap in the wall,” Halifax recalls. “Needless to say, the veil between the living and the dead became quite thin. These two women, Lilla and my grandmother, brought story forward in my life. As I age, story is becoming a practice I value and an art I’m learning.”
After the fabric for the kesa was dyed, Halifax had to make the fine cut. The size of a kesa is exactly prescribed based on the measurement from the wearer’s elbow to the tip of the middle finger. She carefully measured and cut for a week. Despite her focused attention and concentration, some pieces came out too small and some too big. But the process was at least as important as the goal.

“Making the kesa has been an important activity for the feminine part of me, with making something beautiful, with bringing worlds together,” she says. “For years, I have been exploring the expression of feminine consciousness in relation to both academia and Buddhism, worlds that are male-dominated and patriarchal. I haven’t felt oppressed by the male world, but I’ve had an on-going commitment to the feminization and democratization of academia and Buddhism.”

When Halifax chants the 80 names of the patriarchs of her lineage, there is not a woman among them. She is often asked by women how she can be a Buddhist when the tradition is so patriarchal.

Her response: “Awakening and compassion is not about, nor should it be about, gender. The gender warp in Buddhism has arisen from the social values in the cultures where Buddhism has found itself. At the end of this millennium, as we realize the treasure of Buddhist philosophy, psychology and the contemplative practice, we as westerners will transform the infrastructure of Buddhism so it opens up to the feminine element and to democratic values.”

Patriarchy is not the only social issue today facing Buddhism in the West, in Halifax’s opinion. “There are several other important issues,” she says. “One is that many of our dharma centers are quite white and overly precious. Another is that Buddhism is often mystified. Another concerns issues around secrecy. Another is the student-teacher relationship, including transference and counter-transference. Another is the precepts and how we work with them. And so forth. In other words, we are in a time of fascinating and often problematic inquiry and experimentation as Buddhism develops in the West.”

Halifax says she knew at the age of four that she would never really be married and never have children. Her marriage was brief, difficult, interesting, but it wasn’t really a marriage in the sense of a true partnership, she admits.

“As a woman, I’ve had the opportunity to explore and to fail. I’ve had very little to lose as a woman. Nothing really was expected of me. My father wanted me to be an airline stewardess. He loved to travel and he was a thrifty Protestant, so what better than to have a daughter who was an airline stewardess?

“I’ve taken absurd risks with my mind and my body and my heart, and I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve done things that have hurt myself and other people. I’ve made mistakes that I’m terribly embarrassed and appalled about as I sit here in my mid-fifties. But I believe that I continue to strengthen through my failures. Maybe I’m a bit more accessible to my students and friends because I have not been a paragon of ‘virtue.’ I’m probably a little more patient. I can suffer fools for quite a long time. But then, after a while, I don’t suffer fools that easily. It’s part of aging, you know.

“I feel that Buddhism needs a big roof to shelter all beings, not just those who appear to have big buddhafields. Recently, I heard the Dalai Lama talk about his temper. I was relieved. Buddhism by its very nature is called to exclude nothing.”

When the pieces of the kesa were cut, Halifax began to sew them together. She laid out the 21 pieces on her dining room table in terms of balance and color. Then she sewed the pieces together in seven rows, with three pieces per row. She had learned the “blind stitch,” a tiny and precise stitch, for this purpose. The irony of the “blind stitch” was not lost on her: twice in her life she had gone blind.

At the age of four, Halifax contracted a viral infection in her eye muscles. She lost control of both eyes and was functionally blind until the age of six.

“I remember waking up and not being able to see,” she recalls. “For much of those two years I was bed-ridden, so I wasn’t properly socialized. I felt marginalized as a sick person. I felt inferior. I had lots of feelings of sorrow and solitude, of vulnerability. But great gifts came to me at the same time. One was Lilla, whom my parents brought in to take care of me. Another was that my imagination was ignited. I had to reinvent the world I couldn’t see. Memory and imagination created a very rich interior life for me. Fundamentally, I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. This very situation became the key to internal stopping. The contemplative element of my nature was born at this time.”

When she was 42, tumors on both of Halifax’s eyes were surgically removed. The follow-up radiation treatment severely burned her eyes. She wore eye bandages for several months while her eyes healed.

Making the tiny blind stitches in the kesa strained her weakened eyes. “I felt a connection with women all over the world whose ability to see the so-called real world has been diminished through their service to others—cooking over smoky fires, sewing tiny stitches in poor light, working in the fields in the blinding sun and dust. It also occurred to me that perhaps this is why many older women have second sight, an ability to know intuitively.”

“Sewing the kesa was one of the most feminine things that I’ve done as a Buddhist,” she says. With every stitch, she repeated over and over, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” The refuge chant has remained a constant presence in her mind, even now that the kesa is finished.

“It gave me the insight that there is a fourth characteristic to the feminine besides the usual ‘maiden, mother, and crone.’ The fourth dimension of the feminine I call the ‘woman of craft.’ This is the creative, aesthetic and mature expression of the feminine through the domestic, folk and fine arts. This woman often brings her creativity to social concerns, healing or peacemaking. She can work in deep solitude or with many women in a collectivity.”

In her book Fruitful Darkness (HarperCollins, 1994), Halifax wrote: “It is understood that the craft of loving-kindness is the everyday face of wisdom and the ordinary kind of compassion. This wisdom face, this hand of mercy, is never realized alone but always with and through others. The Buddhist perspective shows us that there is no personal enlightenment, that awakening occurs in the activity of loving relationship.”

“Language is a place of creativity for me,” Halifax says. “So are gardening, painting, dancing, and singing. Now I feel that I want to sew more. Part of my nature is deeply embedded in the arts, in bringing the imaginal forth as a way of healing in the world.”

When the kesa was finished, Roshi Glassman made another suggestion as part of Halifax’s preparation for her ordination—that she cut her long, dark hair. “It’s a strong thing to do,” he told her in his quiet way.

But she couldn’t just lop it off in one fell swoop. Much of her identity as a woman had been bound up in that sensuous hair. The hair tied her to a past when she was a younger, wilder woman. As the date of her ordination approached, she cut her hair shorter and shorter. An inch, then a few more inches, exposing the nape of her neck, then a close buzz, leaving only a quarter inch of fuzz.

Halifax slips on the completed kesa. The voluminous folds conceal her slight frame, but every panel of fabric, every stitch, reveals who she is. She has a really, really big grin on her face.

“The kesa has been about bringing life and death together into an undivided reality—form and emptiness into just this moment,” she says, her brilliantly blue eyes twinkling with merriment. “It’s no big deal.”

Before her ordination, Joan and about thirty other people, including Roshi Glassman, sit in a circle and meditate. Their zafus are stumps and rocks in the middle of an abandoned asphalt school yard in Yonkers, New York. People carrying blaring boom boxes walk through the school yard. Low-rider cars rumble past a few feet away. Joan is practicing what she will do as a Soto priest—putting her altar in the street.

“I have been taking my altar to the street for many years,” she explains later. “I mean that in the sense of engaged spirituality. My work with the dying is one of my strongest ways to practice, of taking a plunge into the unknown. The ordination provides me with the opportunity for more advanced studies and for deeper collaboration with Roshi Glassman and his wife Jishu and their community.”

That collaboration includes developing a global network of communities with a spiritual basis that are dedicated to peacemaking. Such communities exist all over the world—Roshi Glassman’s Zen Community of New York, Halifax’s Upaya in Santa Fe, others in Poland, Switzerland, Italy, and on most every continent.

“We’re creating a way for these villages to link with each other and to begin to move more deeply with commitment and support in this work of service and practice,” Halifax says. “We’re assisting in the development of communities where people can go and take plunges into the unknown, do intensive work, put their altars in the street. I don’t see myself ever stopping that work.
“Probably the only thing that will change with my ordination is that my wardrobe will expand and I won’t have any hair,” she says with a laugh.