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



Tuesday, June 1, 2021

"Finding God in All Things"

June 2, 2021


Bonnie Johnson Shurman
Jan. 20, 1944-June 2, 2011

Today is the 10th anniversary of Bonnie's death. I am among the many people who loved her and miss her kind and warm presence. She was an extremely generous woman and expressed her love as wife and mother,  daughter, grandmother and friend, in a way you could count on. 

More than a decade ago, when she was first diagnosed with leukemia, her husband Daniel Shurman told me that she was interested in doing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and asked if I could suggest a book that she could use. She did the Exercises and I was blessed to be her guide. But it was her enormous spiritual gift that allowed her truly embody the Teaching of Jesus, and then to share it with others, just as the Lord asks us.

During the years that her cancer remained in remission, she continued to explore the path that her Lord, through Ignatius, opened. She continued to live her life in prayer, exploring and digging further, following her own inspiration and gifts. This mystical bent was always balanced by the consummate professional, a scholar with common sense. 

She found a link between Ignatius and Julian of Norwich via an informal association of seekers who called themselves “the Friends of God.” She wrote about Julian, Ignatius and the Friends of God when she was studying at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is dated March 8, 2005. 

Thank you, Daniel for being the kind of husband who inspires, and for introducing me to Bonnie, To thank Bonnie for the gift of friendship, I am going to post the paper, “Finding God in All Things,” here.

We miss you, Bonnie. and your gentle presence. We are enormously grateful for the gifts you gave us. May you sing with the angels.

I have given this paper the same title as William Barry’s book: Finding God In All Things, A Companion To The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius (Barry 1991). I was reading the book when Julian of Norwich was assigned in class. The similarities between Julian’s writings and Ignatius’s were striking to me. Both Julian and Ignatius write of multiple sensory experiences with God occasioned by life-threatening illness. Before I understood that Julian was born 150 years before Ignatius, I considered that her visions, like mine[1], might have been delirious manifestations engendered by Ignatian-style guided meditations. When I realized that she lived long before Ignatius, I abandoned the paper I was writing on the general topic of asceticism to delve deeper into parallels, coincidences, and possible connections between these two late medieval mystics.

The theological proposition of this paper is that the writings of Julian in circa 1400 and the writings of Ignatius circa 1525 are representative of a distinct spirituality: God as Friend. God as Friend is a paradigm shift from the dominant spirituality from the 4th century: Deity of Christ; it is distinct though related to two paradigms which were soon to emerge in the reformation: Salvation by Faith Alone and Incarnational Participation. At the end of this paper I will argue that the paradigm of God as Friend is finding new relevance in our time, hence bringing a renewed interest in both Julian and Ignatius.

In my search for a “social network” connecting Julian and Ignatius, I learned about an informal group called “Friends of God” from one of the many websites devoted to Julian. The name for this “association of pious persons, both ecclesiastical and lay [also men and women], alludes no doubt to John 15:14-15[2] … Friends of God appears to have had its origin in Basle between the years 1339 and 1343, and to have thence extended down the Rhine even as far as the Netherlands” (Walsh 1909). I am skeptical that Julian herself had any direct connection with the informal network of German mystics, but there is indirect evidence at least that many of them had access to her writing. One version of Julian’s Short Text (the so-called “Amherst Manuscript”) also contains writings of Friends’ mystics Marguerite Poerete, Henry Suso, and Jan van Ruusbroec (Holloway 1997). The manuscript had been in the Brigittine Syon Abbey; it was owned by the Lowe family and through them found its way to the Low Countries and Rouen (Holloway 1996). While there is no direct evidence of who might have read it and when, there is enough indirect evidence to conclude that Julian’s ideas were circulating among German mystics following her death circa 1425. The German mystics influenced Ignatius through the Carhusian and former Dominican monk, Ludolf of Saxony (Gieraths 1986). Ignatius is known to have read and re-read a four volume Spanish translation of Ludolf’s Life of Christ and to have been profoundly influenced, even converted, by what he read there (Ignatius 2000, p. xiv; Loyola 2000, p. xiv).

The references to Julian’s writing in this paper come from a “Long Text” version translated from the manuscript found in the British Museum. As I read Revelations of Divine Love (Julian 2002), I noted about sixty passages expressing ideas similar to those found the Spiritual Exercises, far too many passages to discuss here.[3] I am concentrating on five concepts that point parallel notions of God as friend; in particular, I am limiting myself to the best examples that reveal similarities in their views of how people carry on friendship with God various media/modes. I use quotations from the work of each to document my argument that friendship with God is created and maintained through intimate communications which take at least five different forms: imagery, senses, colloquy, consolation/ desolation, and prayer. In the conclusion of the paper, I also point similarities in how they describe the nature of this friendship in their discussions of sin, love, goodness, choice, and the indwelling of God in our nature.

Communication is the sine qua non of any friendship. To have a concept of friendship with God, therefore requires that there be some form of media which constitutes that communication. For both Julian and Ignatius, imagery is the most important media and the Passion is the most important topic of that imagery. In examining Julian and Ignatius’s imagery of Jesus’ Passion, such in the illustrative passages below, it is easy to dismiss their perspective on friendship. After all “Body of Christ” imagery was a common theme of medieval piety yet friendship with God was not. I have little knowledge of other writers in the “Body of Christ” genre, so I cannot say that the friendship imagery of Julian and Ignatius is unique. What I observe in their imagery, however, is its intimacy. Both show intimacy with Jesus’ body; this use of imagery signals closeness, friendship.

… All the precious blood was bled out of the sweet body that might pass therefore, yet there dwelled a moisture in the sweet flesh of Christ as it was shewed (Julian 2002, p.). 

… Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus hear me. Within Thy wounds hid me (Ignatius 2000, p. xlv).

Simply imagining another in a prayerful way can also create a close relationship with the one imagined with the need for conversation as we typically understand that term. A few months ago my husband and I were contacted by a friend to provide direction to on-line medical information for a friend of his with a rare bone marrow disease. We started to email with both Jim and his wife about Jim’s illness and potential resources in Palo Alto. Mostly we prayed intensely for Jim and also for his wife; we never spoke with them even by phone. When Jim died unexpectedly from a heart attack, both Daniel and I were devastated; we still cry at the thought of Jim. We had lost a dear friend, one whom we knew only through imagery, email, and prayer. It was a dramatic Julian-Ignatian lesson for me: I felt so close to this person and that closeness was entirely the product of my imagining his circumstances and my daily prayers for him. Knowing Jim in this way helped me to experience God in a fresh way; I learned how I can know God without human encounters just as I had known Jim without these encounters.

Imagery in Julian and Ignatius is not only visual, it is also multi-sensory.

I HAD, in part, touching, sight, and feeling in three properties of God, in which the strength and effect of all the Revelation standeth (Julian 2002, p. 197). And then shall we, with His sweet grace, in our own meek continuant prayer come unto Him now in this life by many privy touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feeling, measured to us as our simpleness may bear it (Julian 2002, p. 90). 

The Fifth contemplation will consist in applying the five senses to the matter. … seeing in imagination the persons, in contemplating and mediating in detail the circumstances in which they are… hear what they are saying… smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness of the divinity … touch, for example by embracing and kissing the place where the persons stand (Ignatius 2000, p. 45).

Communicating with one’s Godfriend goes beyond merely experiencing God through ones imagination and senses; both Julian and Ignatius converse directly with God. Throughout the Julian text, she is posing questions to God, and God is answering her, for example: “AND thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably: I may make all thing well, I can make all thing well, I will make all thing well…”(Julian 2002, p. 61); the result of this is conversational. Ignatius uses the term “colloquy” to refer to conversations with God (and also with Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Spirit on occasions): “The colloquy is made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another” (Ignatius 2000, p. 24). These two examples exemplify a pattern of “shewing” vs “exercise” that I find over and over as a distinction between these two books: Julian shows her communication with God; Ignatius instructs the maker of the exercises to perform these same kinds of communications. Thus, “revelation” in Julian becomes “exercise” in Ignatius.

God has special kinds of communication with Julian that I would call, following Ignatius, “consolations” and “desolations.” In Ignatian spirituality, consolidations and desolations are the movements of the spirit—“internal movements” by which we can discern God’s will in our lives. Those making the exercises are taught how to listen or feel for these movements and thereby to guide their lives in accord with God’s will. Again, we see that Julian experiences these interior movements but makes no methodical use of them. Ignatius’s biography describes how he initially experienced them much as Julian did and then learned to put them to use in his own communications with God.

AND after this He shewed a sovereign ghostly pleasance in my soul. I was fulfilled with the everlasting sureness, mightily sustained without any painful dread. This feeling was so glad and so ghostly that I was in all peace and in rest, that there was nothing in earth that should have grieved me. …This lasted but a while, and I was turned and left to myself in heaviness, and weariness of my life that scarcely I could have patience to live. This Vision was shewed me, according to mine understanding, sometime to be in comfort, and sometime to fail and to be left to themselves. God willeth that we know that He keepeth us even alike secure in woe and in weal. And for profit of man’s soul, a man is sometime left to himself (Julian 2002). 

God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause. It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty (Ignatius 2000, p. 119 section 330). ...When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. For though God has taken from him the abundance of fervor and overflowing love and the intensity of His favors, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation (Ignatius 2000, p. 116, section 320).

On the topic of prayer, Julian and Ignatius could not be more similar. Yet, it is not as simple to point to parallel passages as with the preceding topics. For them, prayer is not just a “doing” – not just a message we send to God, in the form of a petition, for example. Rather, prayer is a way of being in which ones very foundation, ones “ground” is God and therefore prayer is fitting ourselves to that Ground of our being. Julian puts it this way:

OUR Lord God willeth that we have true understanding, and specially in three things that belong to our prayer. The first is: by whom and how that our prayer springeth. By whom, He sheweth when He saith: I am [the] Ground; and how, by His Goodness: for He saith first: It is my will. The second is: in what manner and how we should use our prayer; and that is that our will be turned unto the will of our Lord, enjoying: and so meaneth He when He saith: I make thee to will it. The third is that we should know the fruit and the end of our prayers: that is, that we be oned and like to our Lord in all things; and to this intent and for this end was all this lovely lesson shewed. And He will help us, and we shall make it so as He saith Himself; Blessed may He be! For this is our Lord’s will, that our prayer and our trust be both alike large. For if we trust not as much as we pray, we do not full worship to our Lord in our prayer, and also we tarry and pain our self (Julian 2002).

“Grounded in God” has several implications. First, that prayer is about the will of God and our place in that will. From this the next implication, only implicit in the statement above, that God is eternally present and has already “answered” our prayers in our very existence, our salvation, and in all that we enjoy: “The first is our noble and excellent making; the second, our precious and dearworthy again-buying; the third, all-thing that He hath made beneath us, [He hath made] to serve us, and for our love keepeth it. Then signifieth He thus, as if He said: Behold and see that I have done all this before thy prayers; and now thou art, and prayest me” (Julian 2002). Julian cautions us not to go looking for this or that way that God might have answered our small petitions, but to understand that God is answering even the prayers we have not yet asked. So how then should we pray? We should pray that “our will be turned unto the will of our Lord.” The true end of our petitions is that we become like God, indeed that we are at one with God.

William Barry describes the same understanding in Ignatius in his chapter entitled, “Grounded in God: The Principle and Foundation” (Ignatius 2000, pp. 33ff.). God is up to one action; we can experience the creative action of God which is always at work (Barry 1991, p. 39); Ignatius draws out the implications of our place in God’s one action in the Principle and Foundation: “We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things… Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a short life. … Our one desire and choice should be what is conductive to the end for which we are created (Ignatius 2000, p. 12, section 23). In other words, it is about God’s will; our prayer is our participation in that will. We are engaged in the world of God’s creating and God is already answering the prayers we have not yet made.

We have seen in both of these late medieval mystics a central concern with our relationship with God and how that relationship is continuously created through various media. The relationship is one of love. While both mystics write extensively on sin, theirs is not the sin of the medieval church or of Jonathan Edwards. Indeed, Julian comes as close as one might in her day to saying that her Church is misguided in its notion of sin and salvation (Julian 2002, p. 104). Ignatius’ first week of the Exercises is devoted to examining one’s sin, but the point is not to berate or belittle the maker of the Exercises. Rather, the grace of the first week is the experience of love. “Ignatius expects that God will reveal our sins in such a way that we will actually be consoled. We are to have an increase of faith, hope, and love, be moved to tears of sorrow for our sin, but also to tears of love for a God who has been so good to us” (Barry 1991, p. 51). The heart of the message from both Julian and Ignatius is the goodness of God, the love of God, and the freedom which God gives us in the hope that we will choose to put God at the center of our lives, and participate in God’s mission.

Both mystics are saying that we must look in the world and in ourselves to find God. Their piety is finding God in all things, starting with finding ourselves IN God. “For our Soul is so deep-grounded in God, and so endlessly treasured, that we may not come to the knowing thereof till we have first knowing of God, which is the Maker, to whom it is oned” (Julian 2002, p. 133). This is such a contemporary message; it is not surprising that both mystics are being read more in our time than in any time of the past, including their own.

I have argued here that both Julian and Ignatius provide us with kataphatic paths to relationship with God as friend, one in which we are constantly called to God’s mission, but never coerced or threatened. We are called to examine our own sins, not the sins of others; we communicate with God who already God loves us and forgives us already. This is a contemporary theme. These are mystics for our time.


Notes:

1 Since this is not a “personal reflection paper,” I will not discuss further my own experiences. Suffice to say that the parallels I find in Julian’s writings to my own experiences were the motivation for my choosing this topic.

2 “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my father.”

3 References to “Pages” in Julian are to the original manuscript pages; references to Ignatius are to pages in the Vintage-Random House version with section numbers referring to Ignatius original sections.


References

Barry, W. A. (1991). Finding God In All Things A Companion To The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius. Notre Dame, IL, Ave Maria Press.

Gieraths, G. M. (1986). "Life in Abundance: Meister Eckhart and the German Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century." Spirituality Today 38 (August): Supplementary Book.

Holloway, J. B. (1996) The Westminster Cathedral/Abbey Manuscript of Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love. http://www.umilta.net/westmins.html.

Holloway, J. B. (1997) Godfriends: The Continental Medieval Mystics. http://www.umilta.net/godfrien.html.

Ignatius (2000). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. New York, Random House.

Julian (2002). Revelations of Divine Love. Grand Rapids, MI, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Walsh, R. (1909). Friends of God. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Online Edition, K. Knight. 6.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Issan’s Jesus Koan


Sacred memories hidden in a shoe box
Originally posted 23 April 2010


This is a story about my friend and teacher Issan Dorsey Roshi, but it's also about the moment I realized what I always knew—that even my own meditation experience doesn't belong to me.

The line from the dedication in the Soto Zen service at a temple founder’s altar, “May the Teaching of this school go on forever,” is almost a cliché. Are there even answers to the obvious questions, “What is the Teaching of this school?” “How, or even, why should they go on forever?” The founder’s teaching is treated like an assumption. I knew Issan as a friend, a man dying of AIDS, an hilarious prankster even when he was in great pain, and a teacher who opened up a vast, new exploration for me. Of course I harbor assumptions, and if I were to examine his life as if he were the token gay Buddhist saint in drag, that might be more of a blinder than an opening.

A student from New York Zen Center’s Contemplative Care Program contacted me about unearthing some of Issan’s legacy. He had been referred by Rev. Rusty Smith, the Executive Director of Maitri Hospice, or as it’s now called, “Maitri Compassionate Care.” Since the separation of Hartford Street Zen Center and the Hospice, I feared that a lot of material had been lost. Adding to the predicament, Issan loved the phone but the written word not so much: there were no notes from dharma talks. There were a few snapshots from Del Carlson, a close friend, one dharma talk that had been transcribed, and of course David Schneider’s wonderful “Street Zen.” As for the rest, the kind of stuff that you don’t really know what to do with, the sentimental gifts stored in an old shoe box, personal memories of the way that he interacted with each of one us as his students, his jokes, the outrageous stories that you might not want to share with your mother—and there were plenty of those, where could we begin to look?

In early Spring of 2010, I ran into Bruce Boone, a longtime student of Issan, outside the Café Flore which is only a short walk from the Hartford Street Zen Center. After the usual “bring me up to date” conversation which, sadly, included news of his longtime partner’s death, we began to talk about our friend.

I try to be on the lookout for any expression of his teaching that feels genuine, and not anecdotal gay-feel-good Buddhism. I turned the conversation to gathering Issan’s old students together and beginning to record our memories of how our friend really did teach us. I cannot remember if Bruce thought the gathering was a good idea, but he shared a story that moved me.

One morning in North Beach, he’d walked into a quiet church, the shrine of Francis d'Assisi, with his teacher, a man who had HIV and knew that he faced a certain painful death. Bruce might have been trying to offer Issan a place to rest, or maybe peace and comfort, or he might have just been acting as a kind tour guide to the hidden shrines of San Francisco.

When Issan saw the image of Jesus crucified, he turned to Bruce and said, “Oh, that’s me.” Bruce, a former seminarian, said the words brought tears to his eyes, but, as he told the story, Issan spoke in almost an off-handed way. His tone was flat, and Bruce knew that the remark was entirely serious. He called it “Issan’s Jesus koan.”

I knew that Issan had been raised as a Roman Catholic in the traditional Irish-American way, and as a young adult he’d left the rank and file of practicing Catholics. I think that “reject” would be too strong a word. “Neglect” might be better, as in “hardly enough time” for the more pressing things in his life, running a commune, cleaning house, finding the perfect dress with the right hairstyle and make-up, and eventually drugs. But I really had no idea how he held his inherited beliefs. Now facing pain and suffering, he was confronted with a familiar image from his impressionable years in a suburban catholic parish in Santa Barbara, and there it was—just recognition. It sounded almost matter of fact.

Bruce’s words kicked something loose in me—the cross as a koan? It had been almost 20 years since Issan died, and Bruce still held this story about Issan, one for which he had no ready answers or explanations, in a loving way. Then he said, “Even those brief moments while I sat facing the wall, when everything seemed clear as a bell, those few deep experiences have only begun to open up what he might have meant.”

Then I got it: Bruce has been sitting right next to me and meditating for me. He’d handed over the fruits of his zazen without a second thought. They were mine. How generous. Generosity is of course a necessary condition for sharing my meditation with the person sitting next to me, but I don't want my thinking too much to get in the way. It just happens. It is the path that the Zen ancestors have always used to transmit their experience to us. If it's a mystery or even a slippery slope, so what?

Hakuin Zenji’s hymn in praise of meditation contains the verse: “From dark path to dark path,” and indeed that seems an inescapable part of our human experience. But we can also sing “From bright path to bright path!” I’ve had moments when I saw very clearly that meditation experience is not a solipsistic self-generated enlightenment. I would be more than willing to congratulate myself for all the good effort that I'd been making over many years in practice, but what if it weren’t necessarily so? What if the work has already been done or is always being done? Bruce had been working on Issan’s koan for more than 20 years, and all I did was to stand next to him on the street for a few minutes. The Teaching of Issan's school has lived on for almost 30 years. Wrapping my mind around “forever” seems just a step away.

My friend Ken MacDonald added more lyricism to the Soto dedication at the closing of the founder's service:


"These teachings go on forever;
on and on they flow,
without beginning or end."



To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read a dharma talk, go to my page The Record* of Issan.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to this article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails. In 1990 when Ösel Tendzin died in San Francisco where he’d come for treatment of advanced HIV disease, I was living at Hartford Street Zen Center and working at Maitri AIDS Hospice. It felt important for some reason that Maitri, a Buddhist program set up for helping ease the pain of the AIDS epidemic, should be present for the funeral of an important Buddhist teacher who’d died from the disease. 

Shambala was going to conduct the elaborate funeral ritual at their center on 16th and Mission. So we phoned, asked if we could attend, and were given a time; we put on our rakusus and climbed to the second floor above a Jack-in-the Box. I can’t actually describe my shock. It may have been the first Tibetan ritual that I’d attended, but when we entered the hall and made our prostrations, there was Ösel’s corpse kind of trussed up in an awkward meditation posture, full regalia, barely masking the ropes and poles required to hold the body upright. I’d sat with many men who died of AIDS so it was not that the body itself showed the ravages of the disease which were not hidden. It was not that the ritual seemed foreign or exotic. It was, but it was a Tibetan ritual and I wasn’t expecting some low church Episcopalian service. 

What overwhelmed me was the absolute veneration of a man who had knowingly infected others with AIDS. Shambala had tried to mitigate the damage with some mystical smokescreen. It was rumored that some had spread the lie that the guru’s Vajra powers bestowed by the lineage would prevent reinfection, or that it was even an opening for the great enlightenment. But there was at least one teenage boy involved, a young man whose life was now cut short. Everyone present, and there were several hundred, knew that their Regent had knowingly infected people with HIV and that their deaths would be soon upon them. Somehow it was all supposed to be OK in the great scheme of things. The drums beat, the chanting began, and finally Steve Allen got up and motioned for us to leave. On the way down the stairs he said, “All that was missing was the bones in their noses.” 

We returned to Hartford Street, and I got up the next morning to take care of Bernie and JD, and the 5 other men in our care. And I have never picked up “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” again or recommended it to anyone, and I never will.




When I was searching Google for a picture of Mr.Thomas Rich, I found this on vajraregent.org. I think that some people are still in deep denial. 

This is offered with love, appreciation and gratitude to Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his Vajra Regent and dharma heir Ösel Tendzin, for the benefit of their present and future disciples, and all beings.

Through hearing, seeing and contemplating these teachings of the Vidyadhara through his Vajra Regent,

May we realize the essence of transmission from teacher to student.

May we hold precious this seed planting of Vajrayana dharma and Shambhala vision in the West.

Through their gestures and words, may we wake up on the spot.

May we not become confused by spiritual materialism in any form.

Now, practicing moment by moment until the end of this life and beyond, may we free all beings.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Volunteering in an AIDS Hospice

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 Zen Hospice Volunteer Training Program.

That afternoon also set the tone for volunteering, listening and responding to simple requests, taking
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.


Friday, May 7, 2021

When the Breath Ends

The case: Hekiganroku Case 3

Master Ba Is Ill

Great Master Ba was seriously ill. The temple steward asked him, "Master, how are you feeling these days?" The Great Master said, "Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha."


I knocked on Issan’s door, and heard a faint “come in.” He was on the phone. He waved his hand towards the seat next to him, inviting me to sit down.

“Oh,” he said, “let me write that down.” And he picked up the small ballpoint on his desk and began to write carefully in his neat hand.

"The inbreath is the first breath of my life."

"The outbreath is the last of my life." He paused.

"Just to make sure that I have this correctly: when I breathe in it’s as if I were taking the first breath that I’ve ever breathed, and when I breathe out, it’s like the last. And soon it will be the last one.” He laughed. “I’ll probably be terrified.”

“Good bye, Roshi. Thank you. I love you too.”

As he put down the phone, he looked at me and said, “It’s important for me to write these practices down. They’re so simple but I’m not quite myself these days. Sometimes I'm confused or forget. I have to try to do my best.”

Yamada Kuon fills in some of the detail for Case 3 of the Blue Cliff Record: The "sun-face Buddha" is the 202nd Buddha who is supposed to have a life-span of 1800 years. The "moon-face Buddha" is, on the other hand, the 858th of the thousand Buddhas, and has the extremely short life of just one day and night, only 24 hours.

Objectively speaking Issan was towards the moon-face Buddha end of the spectrum. He would be dead within 10 days. But he was also 57 years old, and Richard Baker Roshi had just counseled him that his whole life changed with each breath. What changed? The memories? I know that Issan cherished some and perhaps regretted others. The cells, diseased and healthy? We know that the disease was winning. Loves lost and forgotten? All very present. The pain of the moment, or the cessation of that pain? Yes, that too. Just follow the breath.

My friend Jakushu Gregory Wood jaywalked into this koan conversation and started talking about last breaths and cutting off emotions. He cited Chan Master Shen, imperial attendant of the western capital. Shen picked up a quill, and wrote this poem for Case #36 of the Book of Serenity*:

When the breath ends, it cuts off emotions
Arousing the mind there is no path of mind
Without even the strength to bat an eye
Never do I go out the door


Issan was not prematurely or artificially cutting off any emotion, but on the other hand I didn’t see him exaggerate them either in a kind of swan song. I did hear the faint note of nostalgic farewell in those moon-face days, but he’d been a professional drag artist so that might have just been for the limelight. The practice just indicated following the inbreath as the first breath and the out breath as the last. There is no instruction to stop anything. As Master Shen points out that’s not a roadmap either.

I stood up to leave, and as I opened the door, Issan asked if I would be back before lunch to remind him to take his medication. He invited me into this last part of his life. I tried to breathe with him, residing as he often said, in our “breath-mind.” That gesture of friendship changed my life.

Hakuin warns, “There'll be a lot of fatalities if people take a view of emptiness to be the Sun Face Buddha.” Don’t worry old man, Issan didn’t allow for any confusion. He wrote it down very carefully with a ballpoint pen.

Thank you, Issan. Your best was wonderful.

 

Issan Dorsey (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990) with Ken Ireland (May 26, 1944 to ...)


Hotetsu's Verse:

Listen, I will tell you the good news: you're going to die.
You don't have to get everything fixed, figured out.
It's not up to you. You're off the hook, Dead One Walking.
You only have to be present to the sky's shining faces.
If you say, "no time soon, I hope," you might as well be dead already.
1800 years is just the same as one day.
Right now, the only eternity there is, they're just the same.

 

 


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Zen Bland!




In the Spring of 2011, I did a Zen retreat at a former catholic convent, the Angela Center. As I was unpacking my bag, I noticed that my “cell” was just a slightly less Spartan, more feminine version of the one where I was isolated from the outside world for two years as a Jesuit novice 45 years earlier, the same bland institutional architecture thrown up to accommodate the flood of men and women entering religious life after the Second World War.

In the Jesuit house of formation, we got up at 5:30 and went to bed at 9. Now my concentration started an hour earlier and lasted an hour later, but it seemed to re-stimulate both the ecstatic and painful memories of my novitiate, for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life. I couldn’t stop a flood of memories, tastes of prayer, study, and feelings that soon included my 11 years of Jesuit indoctrination as well as the aftermath.

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th day, as I was walking back to the room, my actual perception of the building suddenly sh
ifted. I was just walking on a linoleum floor that was just a floor, the walls of lightly plastered-over cinder block were just walls. Nothing more. No sounds but the sound of my feet, no visions but what I saw through my eyes—just pictures on a wall, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. It was not a dramatic, flashing-bright-lights insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I was hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. Rather bland for a mystical experience.

But then I began to notice something very powerful open up inside me—every burden that I had been carrying since my Jesuit training was gone. It was extinguished, not conceptually but actually. My past life as a Jesuit was gone, completely gone. Not that it didn’t happen, not that it had no effect on me, but I understood in a non-intellectual way that anything I carry into the present moment was for me to carry. It doesn’t drag itself along. Actually there’s nothing there. It’s not real.

Suddenly in that moment of bland Zen, I was totally and irrevocably free—no one, no thing, no outside authority, no god, no doctrine, no experience could ever enslave me.

Three cheers for bland Zen!


 

Ken’s verse

 

She might have even been as Spartan as Father Ignatius

if her taste had not run to plastered walls, a few modest chintz prints

and poignant photos of helpless children.

You could have fed a child in Haiti for that price, Sister.

 

Alok asked me about priest-craft—

appeasing hungry ghosts with big bellies,

tight mouths, and one might presume assholes,

not to mention pussies. Forgive me, Sister.

 

The antidote contains no eyes, no ears, no tongue,

no body, no mind, no assholes

no thought, no perception, no old age, no ending of old age and death

—and no sex. You know that practice, Sister.

 

I knew, or at least said, more than I ought.

Phil told me that the rite was no more than sleight of hand:

chocolate, cardamom tea, ripe kiwis,

none of it really satisfying or nourishing.

 

Hungry ghosts think it’s dinner.

Anything looks like dinner when you’re starving.

Big bellies and big ears arise simultaneously –

evidence, your pictures of starving children in Sudan.

Trick them. Stuff them with dharma.

No bellies. I know about greed first hand.

 

If you’d had just a little more imagination, Sister,

I might have discovered a unicorn in your garden,

a mythical beast. But no. It had to be a nasty tigress.

Her bad breath nearly killed me.

 

But right then and there

I stuck my head into her mouth,

to fulfill the requirement for courage,

no fear, no lipstick, no kisses.

Then I heard a small voice demanding attention –

Don’t be an asshole. Don’t arm your daemons.

No Crusades, no swords,

No preaching, no stones, no death.

 

And we were saved.

Thank you Sister.

 

 

1 November 2011


Originally posted December 21, 2011, revised during the Coronavirus lockdown, March 25, 2020.

*The title of this reflection comes from a piece my friend Laurence Platt wrote, “Zen Bland,” which was not at all bland but very juicy. He argues that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else! 

 

Dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at Spring sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Case 32: A Philosopher Asks Buddha

Stepping out from under the shadow of God


The case

A philosopher asked Buddha:

"Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"


The Buddha kept silence.


The philosopher bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying: "With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path."


After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked the Buddha what he had attained.


The Buddha replied, "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."


Mumon's Comment


Ananda was the Buddha's disciple, but his understanding was not equal to that of the non-Buddhist. I want to ask you, what difference is there between the Buddha's disciple and the non-Buddhist?


Mumon's Verse 


On the edge of a sword,

Over the ridge of an iceberg,

With no steps, no ladders,

Climbing the cliffs without hands.


___________

A friend asked, “If convert Western Buddhists just set up a competing cult, what’s the value in that?’ Then, because it was a rhetorical question, he answered himself, “The West doesn’t need another religion.” My first impulse was to agree, but when I realized that the koan was about asking questions, that put every answer into a new perspective. I believe some of the answers to my own questions; others I rebel against; some cannot be answered.


Although we cannot identify with certainty the “philosopher”—sometimes it’s rendered, “the pagan” and one teacher even calls him a “Hindu”—this much is clear, the Buddha’s questioner is not a member of the sangha or a lay follower. Hindus, philosophical atheists, pagans, Unitarians, even Jesuits, people who may not even be interested in learning about the Buddhist Path, I have many friends in all those categories.


When I first heard this koan, I took it as validation of my strongly held opinion that no one, not even Buddhists, should try to convert anyone. Who am I to convert anyone? I have a hard enough time with myself. And as the Lord Buddha himself didn’t have anything to say, it was further proof that I was on the right side, or if I were a betting man à la manière de Blaise Pascal,* that I’d picked the right pony.


The Buddha kept silent. For a meditator this is an invitation for introspection and not a confirmation of some rule not to proselytize. But the Buddha also did not pass over the philosopher’s question in silence. What if I began to examine my own questions to see how much they were merely a reaction to the unspoken admonitions of my training both as a Jesuit and an ordinary human? 


I entered the Jesuits just after Jean-Baptiste Janssens’ tenure as Father General. His letters to the brethren were filled with more admonitions than Saint Paul. He began sentences with the Latin heads up, “Taceo--I pass over in silence reports that many Jesuits are smoking,” which was in no uncertain terms an order: “stop smoking.” 


Father Janssens was a remarkable man, the recipient of the title, “Righteous among the nations” for his courageous act of hiding a large group of Jewish children in the Provincial's residence in Brussels, and he was not known for a lax interpretation of Jesuit discipline. Needless to say, examining the restrictive Jesuit norms brought a great sense of freedom, almost as much as rebelling against them. But even Buddhists agree that behavioural norms can promote liberation. 


And now to another type of question. During our last meeting Avery Dulles said to me: “I hear that Buddhists haven’t settled the God question.” Of course he knew the answer—most Buddhism is non-theistic; it does not entertain the question of divinity, neither affirming nor denying a supreme deity, certainly not in the same way that Christians do. In the realm of dogmatic theology these kinds of statements about the nature of divinity are the coin of the realm, and for Avery the existence of a godhead, a personal deity, was central. 


Avery was the renowned, learned Jesuit whom, when he was 82 years old, Pope John Paul II named a Cardinal of the Roman Church, a very high honor indeed and validation of his theological work. He had also been my spiritual director during my theology days, and remained my friend for more than 30 years after I left religious life. Despite all the demands on his time, he never visited San Francisco without calling and inviting me to dinner. 


But that afternoon, despite our friendship, or perhaps because of that bond, I felt as though Avery was trying to pry out an answer that would undermine my Buddhist “beliefs.” His tone was friendly and loving, not disapproving or forceful. He may have been trying to push me towards a more traditional faith, but I couldn’t respond of course I still believed in God, because honestly I was leaning more towards the agnostic end of the spectrum, an answer that would surely have disappointed him. My love for the man overrode any other considerations. Again, we’re back to questions and answers. 


Avery however was a Jesuit through and through, and I might have countered his proposition with an invitation to inquiry, but I didn’t have the skill to turn a rhetorical or speculative question into an opening for spiritual discovery. I didn’t know how my friend would take it, perhaps almost as blasphemy although my real fear was that he would have just made fun of the question—and me.


We might have waded into the tricky currents of sweeping, generalized truth statements that leave one floundering on rocky shores, or to return to my original thoughts about placing my bet on the right ponny, the kind of restrictive notions about God that Jesuits liked to argue about with M. Blaise Pascal and the Jansenists.


Working with the koan opened up that opportunity again.


Avery had framed his statement as a tautology. In logic it’s known as the excluded middle: the law (or principle) of the excluded third, principium tertii exclusi. Another Latin designation for this law is tertium non datur: "no third [possibility] is given." Ludwig Wittgenstein says this constitutes a statement empty of meaning.  


Framing the question as Avery did cuts off the possibility of even seeing or imagining anything but God-or-no-god. Despite what’s almost universal acceptance of monotheism at this point in time, it is simply one formulation that won the cultural and political “god” debate. It wiped out a huge range of numenistic experience, or reduced it to a series of distinctions within the “God, Yes or No” conversation, turning monotheism into a kind of shibboleth* that separates believers and excludes atheists and materialists.


The questioner (my questioner) couldn’t force the Buddha to either take that position into account or exclude him or herself from the Way. That would be simply asking a question looking for a wrong answer. Our philosopher doesn’t misstep.


There is an old adage in spiritual life that there are no bad questions. Frankly in my view this is little more than just trying to ease any inhibition from asking whatever questions might pop up. Given no picking and choosing, bad questions do not exist, but in the realm of good questions, there are better or more ‘useful’ questions when we are seeking to clear our path.


I’ve always felt the empathy, compassion and acknowledgment in this story. I am a former Jesuit, and to be clear, I left the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. However it is impossible for me to change that part of my training, no matter how much I find myself outside the tradition. For me the practice of meditation has been more like stepping out of the shadow of God. There are innumerable spiritual possibilities hidden in between dogmatic statements, mixed in with syncretism and heresy. They exist in a kind of shadow world that is a rich vein for exploration. Maybe Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected from the dead, but the myth still opens a window into the human psyche. I can happily remain agnostic and explore that possibility.


After the philosopher leaves, Ananda asks the Buddha what the philosopher had attained. Poor Ananda. He missed the opportunity to ask someone who might have pointed him towards a useful answer. If he’d asked the philosopher, for example, how meditation had changed his worldview, we’d be in practice territory.


So Ananda just gets to wrestle with a puzzling shadow. Perhaps that was a gift. 


I know I need balance. If not, I get lost in a long theological rant and call it spiritual practice. Sitting quiets my mind just enough so that I can hear other voices besides my own. The rants calm down. Hearing and listening, however, are just the first steps towards understanding, and ultimately compassion. I encourage anyone, no matter what beliefs they cherish, to practice meditation with their whole heart. 


There are several “philosophers” who have attained fluency in Zen practice, Christians, Jesuits, other Catholic religious, a Unitarian minister, and one UCC minister, a friend, who have followed this path and become teachers in the koan tradition. I won’t even try to predict where their practice will take them or their students, but may their practice help relieve suffering and free all beings.


Father Ignatius would have approved of the Buddha's “shadow of the whip” answer. I think that it might point to the heart of the Jesuit-Zen connection. Go ahead ask the question of your own self: "Without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth?"


I have translated Wittengenstein’s answer into Latin.


De quibus loqui non possumus, nobis tacendum est.

[About what we cannot speak, we have to remain silent. Or

What we cannot talk about, we must pass over in silence.]


I will let the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins cap this conversation (from The Habit of Perfection):


Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorlèd ear,

Pipe me to pastures still and be

The music that I care to hear.


Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:

It is the shut, the curfew sent

From there where all surrenders come

Which only makes you eloquent.



Avery died on
12 December 2008; I was told that among the few personal items he carried with him when he went into hospice care was the image of a painting I did when we lived together in New York. Your friendship was a precious gift. Thank you.















___________


Because this has become a Jesuit koan, footnotes are mandatory (and jokes are also helpful). 


*Shibboleth comes from the Hebrew for “ear of corn.” In the Book of Judges we learn that the Isrealites used it as a password because it was difficult for foreigners to pronounce. Mispronunciation didn’t just exclude. It marked them for death.


*Here is Pascal’s bet. 

“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is....

..."God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.[12]




"Finding God in All Things"

June 2, 2021 Bonnie Johnson Shurman Jan. 20, 1944-June 2, 2011 Today is the 10th anniversary of Bonnie's death. I am among t...