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Roshi Joan Halifax on compassion, women in Buddhism, and altruism

Photograph by Mike Waltze

The founder and abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Roshi Joan Halifax has been a socially active leader in Buddhism for more than 40 years—as a civil rights activist, ecologist, and advocate for caregivers and the dying. An anthropologist who lived with and studied the Dogon people in Mali in her 20s, Halifax has also studied and written about shamanism. Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1942, Halifax has said her journey toward Buddhism began at age four, when she was stricken with a virus that left her legally blind for two years.When you got sick, would you say that that was the beginning of your understanding of suffering and the development of your compassion?I look on the sickness as a sort of a dream now—it was long time ago. I look on it, really, as a blessing. I think I was introduced to my inner life as a result. I don’t think I characterized it as suffering. In retrospect, I look on the experience with wonder—I have two eyes now, and I can see. I have that feeling of gratitude.But my mother was a very compassionate person. She was a volunteer during the Second World War at a …

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