One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Buddhist Heaven

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen!

“It is much more difficult to control one's mind than to control the weather.” --Yeshe Dorje

A lonely sheet of paper lies on the top of my desk with some scribbled notes. I picked them to see if I could get back to the moment when it felt important to jot them down. Now they just look random but I tell myself that there is some rhyme and reason. There has to be, or does there?

There seems to be some notion floating around that if it ain’t hard nosed, tough no nonsense practice, it ain’t Zen. It certainly can’t be compassionate--or something.

To any macho Zen priest out there having a hard time adjusting to becoming a hospice monk, too bad, or as they say, suck it up. If you saw Issan in the kitchen trying to get his recipe for chocolate chip cookies right, with a temperature over a hundred and sweat on his shaved head, you might change your mind. You might even call it courageous Grandmother Zen.


One of my dearest friends, Michael, was suffering a long, painful and slow death from AIDS. His partner was an older, very proper, even stuffy, English queen. When I suggested that they might come and visit Maitri to see if it might be a good place for Michael’s final days, the partner was emphatic. He said “never.” He called it “The House of Death.” I was shocked.

Great pain and denial go hand in hand.

I vacillated between those two views many times every day. Before I moved into Hartford Street I imagined that I would be doing some modern version of the ancient Tibetan practice of living in the cremation grounds. The reality was somewhere between cooking mashed potatoes to suit a resident’s particular taste and making sure the cable bill was paid.

The Tibetan Yogi, Lama Yeshe jporje Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s rainmaker, visited Maitri. Issan welcomed him with a big hug and a kiss, to which the startled Tibetan sage responded with a huge grin. I’m told there was immediate chemistry. Issan took him from room to room, probably pointing with his light but careful attention to their detail, the convenience of the bathrooms, light filling the bedrooms in the early morning hours, things that made Hartford Street feel like home, really more like your grandmother’s house. Yeshe-la was so impressed that he blurted out that Issan had created Buddhist heaven.

Stories of the rainmakers' visit were repeated so often they assumed the status legend. I asked Issan if Yeshe Dorje had even talked about Buddhist heaven. Issan said, “Yes,” he remembered their conversation very well. “He was a lovely guy,” but added “he didn’t pay the electricity bill.”

Whether or not Yeshe Dorje was capable of confounding the clouds, he certainly had experience trying to push out the bounds of the order of things. Beyond incantations and spells, a rainmaker needs to be able to read tell-tale signs in the sky that escape ordinary sky-gazing, not so much to control as to see which way the wind is blowing. When a storm is brewing, seek safe shelter.

In the various cultures that have invited Buddhist teachings to stay a while, even as a guest, we find at least several, if not many versions of heaven. Currently the most prevalent myths about this transition between life and death in the West is a kind of instantaneous shift, an escape, shaking off the bonds of our earthly body. New Age Spirituality has us as spirits temporarily inhabiting a corporeal form. At this stage of my life, I find this very odd notion, and very much at odds with the Buddhist notion that the gift of the human body is the result of eons of conscious efforts to wake to the path of liberation.

This popping out of the bottle story line is, I think, a hangover from our 19th century bout with American and European Spiritualism. More ancient Western myths are deeper and more nuanced. The narratives and anecdotes of the gospel of Jesus have defied easy classification; Ovid persisted into the Medieval world, and of course Dante was no shape-shifter. We can trace these stories of the transition back to Homer and the wealth of half-remembered lore that animated the ancient world. Most of them are more in line with a fairly consistent tread throughout Buddhist teaching--that the path from this life to the next is determined by our choices, limited and difficult they may be, and the depth of our practice.

The New Age holds accounts of near death experiences in awe, and, perhaps I am being harsh, imagines death as a kind of “This is Your Life” TV rerun. There may be some truth in the analogy, but it also is colored, fatally in my view, with easy admonitions about loving beyond petty grudges, good over evil, heroic virtue idealized. I admit that “This is Your Life” captivated my childhood imagination, but I think that was more due to the genius of its writers, and their sentimentality, rather than a glimpse into Perennial Philosophy.

Still there are stories that connect us with who we are, ordinary places where we can recognize who we really are.

I remember a rather handsome younger man who often visited his friend in Maitri, a sweet man who had the small room at the top of the stairs on the second floor, facing the street. Like so many of us in the early 1990’s, this young man spent an enormous amount of time visiting friends in several of the places where they were dying, Coming Home Hospice, the Missionaries of Charity’s Arc of Love, Garden Sullivan, Wards 86 and 5B of San Francisco General Hospital. When the time came, he attended their memorial services as most of us did--we all struggled to honor the deep connections that linked us with so many friends who were dying way too young. He was so grateful for the care his friend had received that he wanted to give something back. He came to me and asked how he could help.

The room needed a quick paint job if we could get it done before the bed was filled again. I said if he could help me paint it we could do it in a few hours. As we worked together, he told me that he sensed something different at Maitri. He said he always felt like he was visiting his grandmother. I knew he wasn't talking about the “This is Your Life” version of grandmother.

Yeshe Dorje was right. Issan created Buddhist Heaven. 

Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen.

Come home to the empty house
Longing for the warmth of a fire
Or chocolate chip cookies

You notice your picture hanging on her wall
Right where she left it
Her uncompromising love that seeks only your happiness

It is a blessing
To touch this heart of grief and create a miracle
Fill that house once again

This is the great way

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Out of Bounds, Off Limits

May be an image of 5 people
This is where Issan "Tommy"Dorsey Roshi began his career as a drag artist.

In a friend’s kind of online bio she said that “Zen is essential to my practice, but I'm not a Zen teacher. It turns out I'm too heretical for institutions and that's a good thing. There's much seeping in that doesn't fit the forms. The ecology of erotic emergence overflows.” I thought of her and Issan when I saw this picture of military police preventing entrance to a legendary San Francisco gay bar. If I am perhaps distorting her remarks to dig down deeper into something she intimates about the groupthink that seems to go hand and hand with the kind of rigorous practice that is normally delivered and fostered in western zen centers, forgive me.

“The Black Cat” was one of San Francisco's first gay bars to offer regular drag shows. It was the San Francisco jumping off point for one of the great first generation American Zen teachers, Issan ”Tommy” Dorsey Roshi.

These days Issan wouldn't have a chance in certain parts of America, the country he put his life on the line for. But he seized on the chance of practice as soon as he encountered it and that gave him another life.

Rei, it’s always out of bounds and off limits or it ain’t Zen.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

"Too Many Words"

What I learned from Phil Whalen about writing.

It's a matter of some reassurance

That we are physically indistinguishable from other men.

When introspection shows us

That we have different degrees of intelligence

Varying capacities for knowing morality

We lose something of our complacency

    --Scenes of Life at the Capital

One morning in July of 2022, Google’s algorithm decided that I needed to hear James Dalessandro, bestselling novelist, journalist and filmmaker, tell me about ”The Beat Poets and the Summer of Love.” Or to do justice to the algorithm’s intrinsic value, I was to pay 25 dollars to listen to Mr. Dalessandro’s wise words. When I read the blurb, he told me that Lawrence and Allen and Jack would spill light on the short lived revolution. 

In 1967 more than 100,000 young people descended into the Haight-Ashbury, donned tye-dyed tee shirts or just stripped off their clothes, took lots of drugs, had lots of sex and proclaimed a new age. The Summer of Love was also the end of Phil's sojourn in Kyoto, so it is possible that he had returned to San Francisco. But Jack had already departed the scene, renounced a lot of the Beat philosophy which he thought just gave people permission to be spiteful. I think it highly unlikely that Phil would have shared his friend Allen’s enthusiasm for a revolution. Phil’s hedonism was more restrained. Very much more actually but that didn’t stop him from loving Allen. 

Still I find it abhorrent that the Road Scholar Scholar didn’t include Phil; perhaps the platform insists that their experts focus on hot money makers. 25 bucks is 25 bucks.

I lived with Phil for about 4 years after he’d received dharma transmission from his teacher. I sat with him in sparse zendo, recorded his talks, got yelled at, went to sesshin, sewed a rakusu, listened to his gab, went with him to Walgreens and took lay precepts under him. I was as close to Phil as most of zen friends, except for the very few he really allowed into his life, Allen for one, and I know that he was in love with Lew Welsh, but aside from that, Phil was a lone wolf. We could be friends, but when I got to a place where real intimacy might have been possible, he ended it abruptly. I know others who had the same experience. He wrote “When introspection shows us/ That we have different degrees of intelligence,” and he thought of himself on the high end of that scale.

And despite his remarkable intelligence and way with words, Buddhist Phil could be incredibly dull. He once taught a class on the Heart Sutra and my head didn’t burst with the astounding insight into the interplay of form and no-form, full and empty, thinking and the end of thinking. I had to fight off sleep. Phil preferred his Buddhism boring. He could be as doctrinaire as any squawking human being, and then some. Today however, as the clouds drift down from the mountains, and internally I begin to count between the thunder and the faint flash to locate where it has struck, I am reading his verse with joy and gratitude. He was a genius. 

Morning is fading and the clouds have covered Moon Peak. I can only see as far as my closest neighbor, a small Indian hotel called “Heaven’s View,” 25 meters to the East. Monsoon is closing in. When I knew Phil and was his student, his eyesight had failed to the point where, if I can weigh his words and match it with what I can recall of his gait and gaze, he could only see vague cloud-like formations, and that had to be enough. Misdiagnosed glaucoma would take away the joy of seeing words dance on the page. He was not resentful, or if he was, he didn’t show it. The more immediate concern was how words, which had been the center of his life, the real source of his joy, would continue to nourish a voracious appetite for clarity. It was also an inventive appetite, so we experimented. I was enlisted into a small army of amanuenses. 

We would read to him. I could see him concentration latch onto a passage and hang there. Sometimes there would be a request to return to the beginning of a passage. We could not stop until instructed or we heard the han for zazen. 

Once in while there would be a request from some recondite journal which Phil could never turn down. It usually meant reworking an older prose piece. There would be no more poems. He would find a short piece that came from years back--one that I remember was about dancing around a bonfire on the beach near Bolinas. I read it once. Phil had me shift the order a few clauses, then I read it again. We put some back into their original order. I read the passage again. And then again. Finally in what sounded almost like a sigh, “Too many words. Too many words.” That was the point where work began in earnest. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

An Unauthorized Death

When Maylie Scott’s mother died at home in Berkeley, she called me. Apparently after my stint at Maitri Hospice, I had the reputation as the go-to person for dealing with Buddhist death rites. Personally I found the designation of hospice priest slightly uncomfortable. I had done my best to distance myself from any sacred ritual after spending several of my Jesuit years fussing over post Vatican 2 updating. But as we say, that was my personal issue.

Actually I made it up as I went along. I had to. I’d fallen into my role taking care of men dying from HIV without any formal hospice training. The crisis trained us all, often brutally. The same for taking care of the Last Things. If there was a handbook, it was untranslated or came with tons of cultural baggage. This is a story about some of what we did, why we did it, and where our hands were tied.

When Issan died, Steve Allen asked Kobun Chino Roshi to perform the exacting Soto ritual done at Eiheiji for their most revered priests. Kobun had served in an official capacity there, teaching ritual and chant. He himself had been well trained; his seemingly endless chanting was mesmerizing but certainly beyond our language ability not to mention voice control. He could not train us. I drifted off and realized that it probably wouldn’t make any sense to translate it anyway. It was perfect for that moment, and that was enough. It had to be. Later there were a few odd ceremonial gestures, like pouring salt on either side of the doorposts, that I understood even less. The salt heaps seemed to be Japanese superstition, perhaps to ward off marauding Yōkai. I didn’t want to believe that they had crossed the great waters with the Dharma, but I might be wrong.

Issan had arranged for his own cremation with the Neptune Society. We followed their car to the crematorium. It was a bare, ugly industrial space; the workers were dressed for work around the hot furnace. Though not disrespectful, it was utilitarian which came into sharp contrast when Kobun, Philip, Steve, Shunko Jamvold, Angelique Farrow, David Schneider and David Bulloch put on their formal Okesa. The usual work of burning bodies was interrupted by our chanting. I could see that this was outside the usual practice, and it cost extra. 

Steve and Shunko returned several hours before Issan’s body was reduced to ashes. Usually the crematorium would grind any remaining bone fragments into a powder in what looked like a giant food processor before returning them to the next of kin. Steven had requested that Issan be spared this process so that he and Shunko could sift through his ashes with ceremonial chopsticks, looking for small gem-like fragments to keep as relics.

Several weeks later there was an elaborate funeral at Zen Center. Hundreds of people gathered; Richard Baker Roshi, Issan’s teacher, was the head priest, but Kobun, as well as Mel Weitzman, Blanche Hartman, Norman Fisher and Reb Anderson were also present. Towards the end Richard Schober, the chair of Maitri and not a Buddhist, turned to me and said it felt like high mass for a bishop.

Between 1989 and 94 I was part of so many services for men who died in the hospice as well as others for Issan’s friends that I lost count. Almost 90 men and one woman died during Maitri’s first years. I tried to school myself, attempting to discover an appropriate level of formal ritual. Issan, Steve and Phil performed the Soto memorial service that included food offerings, and chanting, particularly the Daihi Shin Darani, an invocation for the compassionate intervention of Avalokitesvara. There was also a period of spontaneous sharing about the person’s life and loves, something that Richard Baker may have added at San Francisco Zen Center. Several times I helped gather a minyan so that we could recite Kaddish, and there was one Roman Catholic Mass in the zendo. On at least 4 occasions Issan, Steve or Phil performed Tokudo for men who wanted to join the sangha and shave their heads before they died.

The Book of the Dead

In 1989 at Lone Mountain College, I went to a teaching regarding the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö, coupled with the bardo initiation. There were only six to eight of us who attended all the teachings. The lama sat on a high throne in the neo-gothic chapel for three hour sessions twice a day for three days. Despite all this formality he was very approachable, answering questions in an informal, personal way. I remember a long argument he had with an animated, forceful Jewish woman who said she could not forgive Hitler but felt she had to. Jamgön Kongtrül’s resolution, as I recall, was if the Talmudic leaning woman could stop harming herself no matter what she wanted to hold onto, opinions and positions would inevitably fall away.

When on the evening of the last day, time came for the empowerment of passing through the bardos, the audience swelled to overflowing, mostly gaunt men with HIV. I knew in my heart that many of these men were engaged in some kind of magical thinking. The fear of death was palpable. Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö performed the ritual in the manner of someone steeped in tradition. Perhaps death’s sting had not dissipated by the last chant, but if the pain of the men who lined up for his blessing was even slightly mitigated, it was a success. In my own life, the sting would linger for years, a kind of survivor guilt. Along the way ritual became less important, though it did not entirely vanish.

Normally an initiation ends with some practice instruction. On that last evening Jamgön Kongtrül concluded with a plea for everyone to live their lives as fully as possible for however many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years remained. He said that would be the best practice; that bardo practice was noticing what happened in the “in-between” gaps in our experience. Many of these men would be dead in a few months. His instruction was a kind gesture of compassion.

Joshi, Kennett Roshi, and bending the law to death’s favor

Paul Joshi Higley was the first Zen priest in the community to die after Issan. He was one of two men and one woman Issan ordained. Paul had been a student of Chogyam Thrumpa, and held some level of Shambhala Training. He came to the hospice with a six month life expectancy and lived for nearly two years. He became part of our community, and my friend. In his late 30’s, dying of AIDS, he had a strong will to live fully. Determined to take full advantage of anything that medicine could provide during that first terrible decade of the epidemic, he didn’t die in the hospice but at Garden Sullivan Hospital out on Geary Ave after an experimental treatment.

The hospital called early in the morning, perhaps 1 AM. I’d promised Paul that his body would not be embalmed and that it would remain undisturbed for at least three days before cremation, but I was not at all prepared to find a way to transport a dead body from a hospital back to what looked like an ordinary San Francisco house in the dead of night. In those days the hospital afforded you 4-6 hours to have a funeral service to pick up “the remains.” I called Paul's father who met me at the hospital and provided the signature required for the release of his son’s body. Then I had to convince a tiny African-American mortuary to transport his body to “a Temple.” This was not entirely a fiction as Maitri was still part of Hartford Street Zen Center, but it was pushing the limits. It was against the law for a body, certainly an unembalmed body, to remain in an ordinary house, not a licensed funeral home, for three days.

We returned Paul’s body to his room at Maitri between 4 and 5 AM. I began to wash it carefully with sweet tea and a few drops of alcohol added, the astringent to help seal the pores; then I inserted some cotton balls into his anus. He’d been my friend so this was both a labor of love and extremely difficult. Issan once told me that in the time of AIDS, we were at war, and the ravages of Paul's last struggle with the virus were visible on his body. I imagined that I was washing them away. It was sunrise when finally Paul’s body, properly dressed, lay undisturbed in his room, dominated by a huge Tibetan style shrine. I turned and saw the last calligraphy that he’d done on large pieces of fine paper hanging on the wall. They read “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

Over the course of the next three days, friends, family and admirers came and went. It was a kind of Buddhist wake.

Phil sent me to Jiyu Kennett Roshi’s Selling water by the river: A manual of Zen training, to review what she wrote about a priest’s funeral. Together he and I sketched out the full ceremony, where everyone would stand, the placement of the altar table, the food offerings, the order of the chanting. Phil was a Soto priest performing the cremation ceremony of a Soto priest. He wanted to make sure that we omitted no part of the ritual performed in the crematorium in Emeryville.

Paul had kept $25 dollars in his pocket to pay for his cremation. After the ceremony, we used it to buy lunch in a Japanese restaurant. It didn’t quite cover the entire bill.

What did we keep?

A few appropriate words!

After all my experience and hard won lessons, I might expect that I could say something definitive about The Last Things. I cannot. As far as ritual, the first thing that comes to mind is Aitken Roshi’s counsel to Joel Katz, Ken MacDonald and me when we carried Dan Dunning’s ashes to a long boat at Queen’s Surf to be spread out beyond the reef. The Old Man said, “a few words would be appropriate.” Dan had been a dear friend for years. As I took the lid off the urn, I mumbled, “I loved you immensely, and I’ll miss you immensely.” Joel and Ken saved the day. They chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, banging rhythm on the gunwale as we rode the waves back to shore. I’m sure Dan loved that professional musicians did the honors, especially since he’d seen Phantom half a dozen times.

Washing the body

Frank Ostaseski taught me the practice of washing a body for the final time. It is an intimate gesture of love and respect. It is also a difficult practice. When not left to morticians or hospital nurses, it can be an act of friendship. It is also a physical act, reminding us that death is real. Thank you Frank.

Don’t touch anything for a while

I had a Japanese friend whose partner died of AIDS. Yoshi wanted to keep the man’s body undisturbed for three days. He bought all the dry ice available in his small Marin town. Early on we decided that Maitri also ought to allow a resident’s body to remain untouched for three days. Cultural conventions certainly did not influence me nor do I have any particular beliefs about the soul traversing to a nether world, but I did sense that trying not to interfere with a natural process was probably a good thing, akin to not interfering with the natural process of thought in meditation. 

I certainly wanted to be respectful. Working in the hospice, I'd become keenly aware of a delicate balance between pushing to get something done and leaving things alone. Although it may feel like a good idea for personal relationships to be as loving, complete and even as robust as possible as death approaches, there may have been damage which requires more healing time than what’s available. On the other hand, having a formal will in place as well as written instructions about funerals etc., is something that has a definite time frame. Sometimes I had to push through denial and procrastination to get papers signed. Thankfully I had the assistance of very well trained social workers from Visiting Nurses and Hospice to help.

But more of a problem was the legality of not removing a body immediately. The law required that we not keep a body more than 24 to 48 hours without refrigeration or embalming. Luckily I found a funeral director who helped with the legal forms, the death notice, so that we could keep a body in the hospice for as long as possible. After some experience we realized that though we didn’t need dry ice, we did need a lot of ventilation. We always seemed to be pushing the limits.

One of the social workers called it “lying in state” when she would ask patients how they wanted their bodies treated after they died. Many, if not most, chose our Buddhist wake. Their friends did come by. It always took its own form. Sometimes there was chanting or some spiritual practice, but it didn’t have the religious formality of visiting hours with the obligatory rosary of my upbringing. Most of the men in the hospice would have rejected that anyway. In almost every case I can remember, it just seemed to fit.

As I sat with many bodies, I began to notice that dying is not instantaneous. Like any process of saying goodbye, life doesn’t just end when the breath stops. It’s not like walking out and closing a door. The legal definition of death may be that the heart no longer beats, but hair and fingernails continue to grow. The skin seems to continue to breathe. Bodies actually change. Over the course of several days I could actually see life taper out. I was not imagining something. It is a reality that I can no longer escape.

Full Circle

After Maylie Scott’s mother Mary died, I'm sure Maylie washed her body with love. Then she called several of us who’d been close to her mother during the last years of her life. We came and sat up with Maylie through the night. Three days later she called the Neptune Society. Within the hour they arrived accompanied by two cops because there had been an “unauthorized death.” Maylie thought that her mother would have been very amused by the ruckus she caused.

Mary’s ashes are kept in the ancient Malling Benedictine Abbey south of London where her other daughter, Sister Mary John, was the abbess. From Eiheiji, through Kaddish and The Book of the Dead, to a small Buddhist Hospice in San Francisco during the time of AIDS, and onto a small abbey of cloistered Anglican nuns. Perhaps a bit wobbly, but full circle. Life and death continue to circle on and on.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche died this morning.

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche died this morning in McLeod Ganj. He was probably 101 years old. The registry of births in Tibet was not very precise when he was born but who’s counting? My landlord Hari Singh who has been his driver at least since the onset of Covid just texted me.

Hari called Rato “The Holy One” out of his deep respect and love. I called him “Chuck Rinpoche.”

Perhaps 8 months ago Hari asked if his wife could use my kitchen to cook a meal for the Rinpoche. He’d made a special request to eat some of Reshma’s home style cooking. The flat was also easier for Rato to negotiate and the seating more comfortable. I said of course. We all had greeting scarfs and Hari lit a smudge pot smoke offering on the steps. About 1 PM, we welcomed Geshe Nicky Vreeland followed by Rato, helped along by his attendant Norbu.

The food was wonderful. Lamb curry North Indian style. I was amazed to watch Rato, Nicky and Norbu eat with such gusto. Reshma prepared the Rinpoche’s dish carefully, with rice, smaller pieces of mutton and lots of gravy.

My friend Alex Kype was also there. He’d warned me to be on my best behavior. The Rinpoche was high up the ladder of Buddhist royalty. I sat next to Rato and Nicky was to his left. Rato's voice was barely audible, but Nicky repeated his words. In the course of the conversion, Rato told a story about when he moved to New York City in 1968 to found The Tibet Center. He rented a small apartment midtown but he had no money. So he went to work as a stock boy* in B. Altman. No one could pronounce his name so he told everyone to just call him Chuck. He started laughing. I jumped in and asked if I could call him Chuck Rinpoche. He laughed more.

Rato’s scholarship and dedication to the Way were remarkable and revered over several incarnations, but he’ll always be just Chuck Rinpoche to me.

Thank you for your visit. We were honored.

*This is an interesting factoid. “Chuck” probably earned minimum wage in '68, which was $1.60 per hour (equivalent to $12.47 in 2021).

Saturday, March 26, 2022

CONTENTS, All and Nothing


What is “The Record of Issan?”

An Invitation
Several ways to read and listen to a conversation about things that matter.

"The End of the Rainbow"
Steve Allen questions Issan when he became Abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center.

The Hands and Eyes of Great Compassion
What about compassion is difficult to understand? A koan commentary

Memories in a shoe box, Issan’s Jesus Koan 
Bruce Boone’s memory of Issan.

Hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan—for the first time!
My friend, Fr. Joe Devlin, S.J., celebrated a Catholic mass in the zendo.

Don't Worry. Be Happy. Just do your best!
Issan humms Bobby McFerrin. Actually he told me he couldn’t get it out of head; it was one of those loopy tunes that we can’t stop. But then he amends Meher Baba.

Dokusan goes Kung-an, Talking publicly about sex
The Master teaches how to brush sexual fantasy from meditation.

“They Never Get the Pleats Right” A Mondo
Never Blend In. Not even a fever of 102 could keep Issan from the obligation of officiating at the wedding of some old friends.

"One day not work, one day not eat," 一日不做一日不食
There are always dishes to clean and cookies to bake, if you’re lucky.

Sex, death, and food
Dainin Katagiri Roshi admonishes Issan! “Yes, we work hard long hours. Then we die.”

“Are you going somewhere?”

Buddhist Heaven. Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen!

Lord Krishna comes to tea

Issan and Sweet Baby James

Is life over when it's over?
A friend asks Issan, Why don’t we just kill ourselves?

Really Choosing Death.
There were men who took their own lives in the Hospice. We do get some choice in the matter.

Q and A Zen
A cautionary tale plus a koan—or two. My memory of Issan’s last breaths.

When the Breath Ends, "Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha."
Issan practices till his last breath.

Issan said, "I have things to do!"
This story about Issan’s last week of life came back to me when another Buddhist friend received news of a grave diagnosis from his doctor.

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Road to Rohatsu
After a powerful meditation retreat, Issan asks me to come back to Hartford Street.

I didn’t shout but I’m still a big phoney.
Blue Cliff Record, Case 10.

How does the past become the past? Therapy, Jesus and Zen
Perhaps this does not belong in the story of Maitri, or maybe it does.

Other Stuff

Mindfulness is not a Part Time Job
Bowing, Boring and Bliss
Saint Francis, Goa and Me

Friday, March 25, 2022

Issan asked Shunko, “Are you going somewhere?”

This story has already made the rounds, as well it should. It is so short and concise that it doesn’t yield to a lot of confusion or elaboration. Good koan material.

Issan knew how to deliver a one liner. He was in fact a true master, but this was delivered with no drama, and when he was in such pain and personal distress, we had to stop laughing and realize that he was not just making a joke but effortlessly pointing towards freedom.

I also know for certain that he was smiling and filled with gratitude. I can almost hear his laugh.

Michael Shunko Jamvold was a Zen monk who practiced for many years. He was known for traveling between monasteries and practice centers. Sadly he died alone in Japan from an untreated or misdiagnosed respiratory disease. He was also one of Issan’s close friends whom Issan called on to take care of him at the end of his life. Shunko responded with devotion and grace.

During the last few months of Issan’s life, as the disease took its physical toll, either Steve or Shunko, but sometimes someone else they asked to help, would sit with Issan and help him with basic needs, food, drink, turning over in bed, going to the bathroom. But basically the day-to-day attendant duties fell to either Steve or Shunko. 

The bathroom was just across the hall from Issan’s room, but he needed support just to navigate the 15 or 20 steps when he needed to use the toilet. Shunko held his arm firmly but gently. 

On one of the return trips back to Issan’s bed, Shunko was overcome with emotion, and blurted out: “Oh Issan, I am going to miss you!”

Issan smiled and asked Shunko, “”Oh, are you going somewhere?”

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Ripple Effect: An Engaged Buddhist Conversation

This is a short piece I wrote about my experience living and practicing at Maitri Hospice for a German Buddhist magazine, Ursache & Wirkung, in an edition about "Buddhismus unter dem Regenbogen."

Tobias Trapp asked me to write a few words about volunteering during the AIDS epidemic. I jumped at the chance because it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge Frank Ostaseski and Issan Dorsey Roshi as well as to encourage others to accept the invitation to be with another human being at the end of their lives.

In 1989 I lost a very dear friend, a woman who’d been like a mother to me. Her daughter asked me to donate the hospital bed that she had in her room at the retirement home where she’d spent the last years of her life in San Francisco. 

Through a series of phone calls, a gay friend who was doing design work for the Zen Center Hospice Project, gave me Frank’s number. Could the Hospice use the bed? Frank said he’d love to have the bed. How could we move it across town to the Hospice? I had a truck. Frank said let’s meet and be delivery men. We set a time. 

I liked Frank immediately, bright, up beat, not my picture of a deathbed priest. He was also very persuasive--between the time we’d loaded the bed in my truck and unloaded it at the Zen Center, I was signed up for the upcoming Zen Hospice Volunteer Training Program. 

That afternoon also set the tone for volunteering, listening and responding to simple requests, taking care of what was at hand, and working with others. No special knowledge was required.  

Within 6 months, I met Issan Dorsey Roshi, and became a volunteer at Maitri Hospice. Guided by Issan’s compassion, taking care of almost 100 men changed me. I cooked spaghetti and painted walls, I helped men sort through a lifetime of personal letters and called their mothers. Not every task was easy, but the rewards were immense. 

I could not have known that this simple trip would lead to the first Buddhist Hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. I was just helping a man carry a bed across San Francisco. Thank you Frank, Issan, J.D., Bernie and the other men who came into my life. Your gifts were amazing.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Lord Kirshna comes to tea.

I knew that Allen was in town when there was a knock at the front door at 3:30 exactly. A young man, 21 but not a month more, clean shaven, holding a book, asked, “Is this the Philip Whalen Zendo?” I invited him into the living room where he sat down and quietly continued his reading. I knew that Allen would be at the door shortly; I could hear Phil beginning to make his way up the stairs. He and Allen shared years of friendship. They were punctual. I began to prepare tea.

I loved when Phil’s friends came to visit. Phil was on his best behavior. Not that he was normally badly behaved though in private moments he could be angry, even insulting. Despite being one of the foremost leaders of a movement that questioned the very roots of believing and behaving that my parents taught me, when he was proper, he was extremely proper. But there was another quality to the conversations with his poet friends. Their language was careful and measured. It was literate. I was always looking for any innuendos, and I loved their laughter. It was poking fun without the slightest hint of slighting someone.

Phil of course knew Allen’s long time companion, Peter Orlovsky, and talked openly about Peter’s drug addiction. Phil joked to me about Allen being a follower of “the Cult of Boys,” and this was the first time that Allen had brought a young lover with him. Phil was not very interested in sex himself, reinforced or dictated by his isolated personal habits, but I knew I would be looking for Phil’s reaction. How would he treat a young lover?

The young man and I sat a short distance from Phil and Allen. There were barely pauses in their conversation. It doesn’t matter what it was about. It could have been Buddhism, Trungpa, Diane de Prima or other poets who passed through the Disembodied School at RMDC, or even where to get the best Chinese food in San Francisco. They were friends, and though we weren’t excluded, we were not included. What was clear is that his young companion admired Allen. He hung on every word, carefully listening to each line, laughing when it was appropriate. Allen for his part was attentive to the young man. Not condescending or at all lecherous, he was careful that his friend was treated like an invited guest, not a hired boy. 

Yes I admit that I entertained the possibility that there was some kind of coercion behind the young man’s presence. The age gap was enormous, and there have always been rumors about Allen’s sexual exploits. I also had a distasteful experience of being manipulated by an older man. But at least that afternoon, I was not sitting with a boy-toy but a bright young man who genuinely liked older men. 

I’d been reading Christopher Isherwood’s tribute to his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, My Guru and His Disciple. Isherwood asked the Swami a hesitant question about a new relationship with a young man. Isherwood confessed that, given his experience in the stiff Victorian world of English Catholicism, he was expecting a censorious pronouncement. Prabhavananda told him to treat his lover like Lord Krishna.

Then it hit me. I’d been to tea with Lord Krishna.

A year later I was sitting with Phil when Allen called to tell him that he was dying. Phil cried. 

Thursday, March 3, 2022

All of You Are Gobblers of Dregs!

Blue Cliff Record, Case 11 (the long version)

One day Huangbo went up in the hall and said, "What do you people want to look for?" 
And he chased them with his staff. 
The assembly didn't disperse, so he said, "The Great Master Nintou Farong [594-657, 5th gen] of Ox Head Mountain spoke horizontally and spoke vertically, but he still didn't know the key of transcendence. These days the followers after Shitou [700-790, 8th gen] and Mazu [709-88, 8th gen] speak of Zen and speak of the Way most voluminously. 

All of you are gobblers of dregs. 
If you travel around like this, you'll get laughed at by people. As soon as you hear of a place with eight hundred or a thousand people, you immediately go there. It won't do just to seek out the hubbub. 
When I was traveling, if I found there was someone at the roots of the grasses, I would stick him in the head and watch to see if he knew the feeling of pain. If he did, I could give him a cloth bag full of rice as an offering. 
If you always take things this easy here, then where else would there be this matter of Today? Since you're called pilgrims, you should concentrate a bit. 
Do you know there are no teachers of Zen in all of China?"

There is a lively on-going debate in an online Buddhist group about the nature of practice and enlightenment. Dosho Port published a piece on August 18th called “The Showa Dispute About True Faith.” He describes the efforts beginning in 1928 to make Soto Zen more compatible with “modernism,” including Christianity, by reframing its belief system. A dispute ensued. One side organized their material under the slogan, ‘Original Enlightenment, mysterious practice.’ The other side, the monk establishment, wanted actual practice verification.

I am vaguely familiar with this dispute about modernization in Japanese Soto Zen before the Second War, and the attempts to "translate" the doctrine, if I can use the word, to make it more understandable. There was an attempt to take a portion of Buddhist literature in Japanese, but also Chinese, and free it from its Medieval encapsulation. I went to Masao Abe's amazing classes when he was teaching in San Francisco at CIIS. He definitely comes from this school. I’m a former Jesuit so I also delved into Kitarō Nishida and the Kyoto School’s adoption of Western philosophical discourse. 40 years ago, we all immersed ourselves in the extensive writings of D. T. Suzuki, who, I have to say, comes across more like an apologist or evangelist.

This may be a bare minimum to butt into this conversation, but I will. These efforts to strip the vehicle down to its essential parts leave just enough to work with. To begin, let me take the debate one step further, and remove the parochial underpinnings.

My pared down augment runs like this: an experience of liberation is possible for humans. We don’t quite know what it is because of the current condition of our minds: our mental acuity, the quality of our perceptive apparatus, a balanced or afflicted emotional state, plus I think we have to throw a good dose of fancy, magical thinking, cultural mythology, plus translation difficulties and the vagaries of language into the mix. My list is not complete--there’s a lot to sort out, but I think we can establish, or posit, three hypotheses:

  • Such a state or quality of freedom exists and can transform our experience as humans.
  • It is possible, even desirable, to achieve it.
  • We recognize that it will take effort, education, what we commonly call meditation, and possibly recalibration to achieve this experience.

We believe that certain people have had this experience, most notably the Buddha, but others too, for example Eihei Dōgen, Linji Yixuan, Hakuin Ekaku, Je Tsongkhapa, Shinran, but perhaps we could stretch our imaginations to include the current Dalai Lama, and maybe that auntie whom Red Pine encountered sitting in a cave in China who never heard of Mao Tse Tung but, forget about her, she never wrote anything down. We’re stuck with the guys, they’re all guys, who wrote, had secretaries, or disciples who took extensive lecture notes.

What did they write: of course we have the Sutras, plus other stories of the Buddha and his disciples; the enlightened guys also wrote descriptions of their experiences, some of which seem to be in coded language; thankfully there’s lots of poetry, balanced with carefully reasoned philosophy of mind and analysis of perception and experience; we have to include the myths, and what we call practice manuals, “how to” lists; there are some riddles that purport to point to the experience; then extensive records of the mental and yogic disciplines that practitioners used to achieve this state of liberation plus prescriptive injunctions and admonitions that have even been codified. There is also a large body of instruction material that has not been written down that is generally reserved for advanced levels of practice.

But there are huge problems with all this literature. First is the language and translation. We're blessed to have an army of very well trained and literate translators, but cultural and archaic understandings of the texts remain. Then there is the sheer volume and diversity of the materials. Even if we could determine their authenticity, be sure we have an accurate translation, and be able to determine their precise meaning, we‘d still be stuck with the question of how to use it, actually lots of questions.

Our Western Zen practice stems to some degree from these efforts to modernize. Harada Sogaku Roshi, and after him, Hakuun Yasutani, Kuon Yamada and the Jesuit Roshis, Bob Aitken and the rest of my crowd come from another strain of that same impulse to modernize so that's what I was handed.

Schools of thought are schools of thought. What do we do with them? Again, for better or worse, they inform our practice.

First I think that there's a logical fallacy in the way we understand these efforts at modernization. Following (any) time-honored system of training that we’ve been handed, we believe that if we accurately recreate the logic of the thinking, the order of the steps, the lineage of the teachers, then we can access the authentic experience of liberation. If we fail, then we did something wrong. Perhaps it is a road map, but we want it to be Google Maps, with the blue dot moving across the dashboard screen. Good luck with that. I will set up a dharma combat: can algorithms become enlightened?

Another knot appears when we identify the criteria for validating the credentials of a teacher from within this arcane body of knowledge, whether it’s inka or transmission or tulku. The checklist resides in experience outside ourselves and muddies the teaching as well as opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Call the dharma police to testify before the High Court.

Is this even good practice? I remember working on the koan “Mu” for years with Bob Aitken. I kept complaining in my very Jesuit way that it was all just a self-referential exercise in a closed system. He'd say, yes, it appears that way, and then he’d encourage me to continue. I did. In 1996 I was living with Maylie Scott on Ashby in Berkeley and still doing sesshin with Aitken and John Tarrant. One Sunday morning I had to drive a rented truck back to Santa Rosa. As I was returning to where I’d parked it the night before, POW. All that self-referential mind swirling stopped and I got it. It didn't matter if it came via some well-intentioned modernization efforts in a Soto Shu University in the 20's. It hit me. There was no turning back.

Of course that experience faded soon enough which presented its own dilemma, but it was enough to set me on my own path. I remember saying to Phil Whalen once what a shame it was that the library at Nalanda was destroyed--all that knowledge lost. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. Enough remains. Just enough.” I feel the same about any attempts to update our practice and make it modern or palatable or whatever. Enough remains, Just enough. And, as thanks to Phil I’ll add: “With any luck if we’re lucky.”

I don't want to take a path based on pious dreams and hopes, magical thinking, myth or wild speculation. When coupled with a few token morsels of experience that we might be able to recognize in ourselves if we’ve spent any time on the cushion, we enter dangerous territory. I was lucky to be able to see something authentic in several teachers, among them Issan Dorsey, Phil Whalen, Maylie Scott, Bob Aitken, John Tarrant. I trusted them, and was able to just stick with it until I began to catch a glimpse for myself that something else is possible.

Buddhist Heaven

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