Being with Dying

By Joan Halifax On a windy afternoon, I stood with John and his other family members atop a mesa in New Mexico. John handed his wife the ashes of their eldest son, Patrick, who had died of AIDS. Wordless, she received them and offered some to the wind. We each did the same, in turn.

I had spent a great deal of time with Patrick, and he often took refuge in our silence. When he was relaxed, he would ask me to "tell" him the Heart Sutra. He had chanted itmany times over the year he practiced in our community, but for some reason, he seemed to understand it best when I told it in this quiet and simple way as a story.

Patrick made us laugh and cry. We learned from him, were stretched by him, and turned to him to hear his truth and be with his quietness. His body was covered with the purple blossoms of Kaposi's sarcoma, and he hid nothing from us. We, ourselves, were revealed through his struggle and his joy.

Being with dying means being fully with life. The wonderful practice Thay has given us is a treasure that illuminates living and dying through the direct experience of love. Rilke once wrote that love and death are the great gifts that are given to us; mostly they are passed on unopened. This practice of non-duality, love, and compassion shows us that dying and living, death and life are truly one.


Dharma Teacher Joan Halifax, True Continuation, is the Director of Upaya Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For information on the Project on Being with Dying, contact 1404 Cerro Gordo Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, (505) 986-8518.

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